Our fascination with classic cocktails has grown in recent years, and with it has come a return to the way drinks were made back when people took the time to craft something by hand. We’ve seen a return to the use of egg whites, for example, to give a frothy head to drinks such as whiskey sours and pisco sours.
Dale DeGroff appears behind the bar at Soho Wine and Martini Bar
In the past four or five years, the interest in bitters has skyrocketed. Go into just about any liquor store and you’ll find bottle after bottle of bitters boasting flavors of celery (made for a bloody Mary), cherry (for Manhattans or old-fashioneds), grapefruit (for salty dogs) and mint (for a more righteous julep). Sure, the old standby aromatic bitters, Angostura and Peychauds, are on the shelf, and they still sell for anywhere from $5 to $10 a bottle, but mainy places are starting to stock more exotic mixtures with price tags in the $20 or range or more.
But what are these mysterious elixirs in their bottles, which are occasionally covered in paper wrapping? They are often alcoholic liquids flavored with a host of concentrated botanicals and aromatic herbs, most of which are predominantly bitter. Ingredients could include gentian root, orange peel, cinchona bark, cardamom, eucalyptus, coffee, you name it. Their purpose in the cocktail world is to provide balance to a drink so that it isn’t cloyingly sweet. Think about the indefinable touch in a Sazerac that keeps the licorice flavor of the absinthe in check or the trace of orange bitters that enlivens a real martini.
The seminar at Soho (Photo: James Goulden)
Brad Thomas Parsons has written the exhaustive “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas” for those who must know every last detail about bitters in cocktail history and want to try making their own at home. Bonnie Walker and I lassoed a recipe for barbecue bitters from Bohanan’s Heather Nañez to include in our own “Barbecue Lover’s Texas.”
Dale DeGroff, known as “King Cocktail” and the author of “The Essential Cocktail,” offered a dash or two of his perspective on bitters recently during a Manhattans seminar presented at the Soho Wine and Martini Bar on Crockett Street. The cocktail chronicler produces his own version of these aromatic gems, Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters. And it was one of five that participants got to taste in a series of Manhattans that had been made with George Dickel Rye.
Manhattans all in a row
While leading the tasting, DeGroff also offered a little history on the subject. Bitters were part of the first printed definition of a cocktail, he said. It dates back to a newspaper article from 1806. That’s when someone told the Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, N.Y., that a cocktail was a stimulating mixture of “spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”
But they date back further than that. Actually, they’ve been around since the late 17th century, he said. Stoughton’s Bitters were first produced in England in 1690 and were that country’s second patented medicine in 1712. The original recipe from Jerry Thomas and Pierre Lacour included 8 pounds of gentian root, 1/2 ounce red saunders wood or cochineal, 6 pounds of orange peel, 1 1/2 pounds of Virginia snake root and 1/2 ounce American saffron, among other ingredients. Ten gallons of distilled spirits were added to the mix before it aged. Now, that’s medicine.
“King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff
Bitters returned after Prohibition ended. Cole Porter mentioned them in the 1940 torch song, “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please”:
Leave out the cherry,
Leave out the bitters,
Leave out the orange.
Just make it a straight rye.
But a funny thing happened to American tastes. Somewhere in the last 50 years or so, we surrendered our taste buds to syrupy sodas and other sugary confections. In doing so, we lost our appreciation for all things bitter. Or, as DeGroff said, “We have in our DNA an aversion to bitter things.”
So, for far too long, that bottle of bitters, which never goes bad if it has an alcohol base, was relegated to the back of the bar. Bartenders even took to joking: “What’s going to last longer, my bottle of bitters or my marriage?”
The Manhattan (Photo: James Goulden)
No two bitters are alike, and each will influence the final flavor of your cocktail in a unique way, just as the profile of your whiskey, bourbon or rye will affect your Manhattan. So, do you prefer a bitter and fruity blend, such as the one attributed to Jerry Thomas that has been revived for modern cocktail drinkers? Or the classic, herbal profile of Angostura Bitters? You’ll have to conduct your own taste test. First, sniff and taste a tiny amount of the bitters by itself. What do you taste? Clove? Ginger? Cinnamon? Cola? All of the above? Then shake a drop or two into your drink and notice the changes that result.
Some people, DrGroff said, are so taken with the flavors of their favorite bitters that they’ll pour an ounce or so into an ice-filled glass and finish it off with mineral water or club soda. The end result is a digestif along the lines of a Campari, a bitter liqueur from Italy that’s often served with soda.
By the way, the name Angostura comes from a city in Venezuela, where the formula was developed in 1824. The distinctive bottle with its oversized label is perfect in such classic cocktails as the Horse’s Neck, Rob Roy, Singapore Sling or the Esmeralda, a winning blend of tequila, lime juice, honey and bitters that deserves to be resurrected. So versatile is Angostura bitters that one satisfied Amazon customer claimed they’re an effective mosquito repellant.
Luis Villegas with his winning Manhattan. (Photo: James Goulden)
You can take your bitters out of the bar and into the kitchen. In his book, Parsons suggests using them in everything from chicken wings to a topping for broiled grapefruit. I have used a dash or two in cherry and rhubarb pies to add a kick to the flavor. Just remember to start off slowly. The flavors are intense, so one dash may be all you need in the beginning. Your bottle will not go empty anytime soon. Or as DeGroff joked, if he ever goes into business again, it’ll be to produce something that people consume in quantities greater than a dash or two at a time.
After the seminar, three bartenders presented their own Manhattans to DeGroff and a representative of George Dickel Rye in a competition to see who could put the best spin on the classic. In the end, Luis Villegas of Houston, who consults at Costa Pacifica on Loop 1604, took the top prize for his variation, which he named “Come and Taste It!” Here’s his recipe:
Luis Villegas’ “Come and Taste It!” Manhattan
3/4 ounce George Dickel Rye
1/4 ounce Carpano Antica
1/4 ounce Margerum Amaro
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Blood orange extra-virgin olive oil
George Dickel-infused Cherry
Stir rye, Carpano Antica, amaro, bitters and oil in an ice-filled glass. Strain into chilled coupe. Garnish with George Dickel-infused cherry.
Makes 1 cocktail.
From Luis Villegas