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All About Bitters (Part 1)


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#1 guajolote

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Posted 28 July 2003 - 01:54 PM

After the great Vermouth thread, I'd would like to get you coctail geeks to teach me more about bitters. I have only had angastora.

Thanks


#2 MatthewB

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Posted 28 July 2003 - 02:00 PM

Add the following . . .

Peychaud

Fee Brothers Regular

Fee Brothers Orange

Others might not be essential.

#3 slkinsey

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Posted 28 July 2003 - 02:09 PM

I have all the ones MatthewB mentioned.

Peychaud is absolutely essential to a Sazerac -- a classic cocktail that deserves more attention.

A good way to get to know the various bitters is a Charger: seltzer water over ice with a dash or two (or three) of bitters.
Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

#4 MatthewB

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Posted 28 July 2003 - 02:14 PM

This has me thinking . . .

A Pink Gin tonight. Thanks for taking there, Sam. (Dunno how I got there but that's okay.)

Edited by MatthewB, 28 July 2003 - 02:15 PM.


#5 Dave the Cook

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Posted 28 July 2003 - 02:16 PM

I wouldn't be averse to a primer on bitters: what are they, where did they originate and why, what's their shelf life, are there cooking applications; that kind of stuff.

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#6 JohnnyH

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Posted 28 July 2003 - 02:18 PM

I have all the ones MatthewB mentioned.

Peychaud is absolutely essential to a Sazerac -- a classic cocktail that deserves more attention.

A good way to get to know the various bitters is a Charger: seltzer water over ice with a dash or two (or three) of bitters.

Great cure for a hangover.
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#7 MatthewB

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Posted 28 July 2003 - 02:27 PM

I wouldn't be averse to a primer on bitters: what are they, where did they originate and why, what's their shelf life, are there cooking applications; that kind of stuff.

Charles H. Baker's The Gentlemen's Companion has an interesting section on bitters. I believe the copyright has long lapsed. Think I can copy here without violating anything?

#8 cdh

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Posted 28 July 2003 - 06:56 PM

The GC rocks as a bar reference! Its copyright was 1939, so it could have been protected for 48 years at the maximum, right? I'd have to check a reference I don't have handy, but I'd bet it is public domain.

As to bitters, the classics are the Angostura, Peychaud and orange bitters...

Angostura has a sort of "cookie spice" flavor, while the Peychaud has a brighter and more licorice-like flavor. Orange bitters is nice, but is less complex than either of the others... they're also much less available.

Amongst the other less available bitters, there are Fee's Aromatic bitters, which is closest to Angostura, but has more pronounced cinnamon and clove highlights. Fees also do a Peach bitters, and a Mint bitters... the Peach makes a lovely champagne cocktail, and pairs with fruit juice based drinks quite well... it gets lost in straight booze. The Mint requires more experimentation... it's green color makes for some unnatural colors, which has discouraged me from playing with it.

From foreign shores, you might find bitters like Boonekamp, which comes in very large bottle (750 ml)... but is as strong as an ordinary bitter. Boonekamp is dark, unsweetened, and has clove and licorice flavors predominating with a bunch of others flavors in the background. You could also find the little tiny single-serving bottles of Underberg, which is roundly herby, and quite pleasant straight. There is the Czech Becherovka bitters, which is sweet and has a cinnamon and spicy nature, and makes for a very nice change in a manhattan instead of Angostura.

Those are the lot I've had experience with... I've omitted Campari since everybody knows that one and its citrus-peely-ness... I've been meaning to try Gammel Dansk, but haven't gotten around to it. Don't know of any other commerially available cocktail bitters, so would appreciate enlightmenment if anybody else knows any.

Edited by cdh, 28 July 2003 - 06:58 PM.

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

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#9 MatthewB

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Posted 29 July 2003 - 09:46 AM

I wouldn't be averse to a primer on bitters: what are they, where did they originate and why, what's their shelf life, are there cooking applications; that kind of stuff.

I looked through all of my drinks/cocktails books last night & I didn't find much info. Just the aforementioned Baker. (I'll post that when I receive clearance from the tower.)

As far as what bitters are . . .

Herbal concoctions.

As far as origination & why . . .

For healing.

(Clickity for Angostura's history)

As far as shelf life . . .

Should be about indefinite if stored in a cool dry dark place.

As far as cooking applications . . .

Try, for instance, Fee Brothers Mint Bitters in cake frosting. :biggrin:

#10 trillium

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Posted 29 July 2003 - 11:09 AM

Are we talking just about cocktail bitters that come out of a dropper bottle or are we talking about amari, the digestivo type drinks? Craig has an article on the big amari producers on the front page of egullet, but they rather sillily posted the announcement in the wine section since it's part of the "wine camp" series.

It's pretty funny how medicinal stuff morphs into regular food/drink. When we talked about making homemade amari (I can't find the thread in the archives) Jim Dixon mentioned that you can buy most of the herbs/roots/random plant material at Chinese herbalist shops (where they're still being used for medicine). Back in Chicago at my favorite Thai grocery, the owner loved to tell us about how Thai food developed because of ways to make medicinal stuff (like galanga) palatable.

regards,
trillium

#11 MatthewB

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Posted 29 July 2003 - 11:19 AM

Trillium,

Yes, please include amari, etc. :smile:

Just bigger bottles of bitters, in a way.

#12 MatthewB

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Posted 29 July 2003 - 11:22 AM

Another point that trillium touched on . . .

Making your own bitters. (Most bars used to do this.)

Here's a sample . . .

Charles H. Baker's receipt for orange bitters

#13 MatthewB

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Posted 29 July 2003 - 11:29 AM

And, while I'm at it . . .

Craig's article reminds me of this wonderful end-of-evening drink:

3/4 ounce Fernet Branca
3/4 ounce creme de menthe (preferably Marie Brizard or similiar quality)
3/4 cognac or brandy

Shake well w/ ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

Edited by MatthewB, 29 July 2003 - 11:30 AM.


#14 DrinkBoy

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Posted 29 July 2003 - 08:24 PM

Ahhhhh.... Bitters. One of my favorite cocktail topics.

A -very- important thing to understand about bitters, is that prior until about 1900, -every- cocktail included bitters of one form or another. This was by definition.

In fact, if you have a copy of the 2nd edition of "The Savoy Cocktail Book", (pub 1933), Harry Craddock includes some information sent to him from a reader of his first edition. He was objecting the recipe that was listed for the "Lone Tree" cocktail, because it included 2 dashes of Orange Bitters. As this correspondant relates, this specific cocktail was created "Round about the year 1900" in order to attempt to prove that it would actually be possible to create a cocktail that did -not- include bittes as an ingredient. The "Lone Tree", was the result, consisting simply of 3 parts gin, to 1 part of Italian vermouth.

Myself, I enjoy concocting various bitters at home. I make not only my own Orange Bitters, but I have created my own recipe for what I refer to as "House Bitters" http://drinkboy.editthispage.com/stories/s...yReader$34 , which started out as an attempt to duplicate the long defunct "Abbott's Bitters", and which with additional modifications I am hoping to one day actually perfect. http://drinkboy.edit....com/2003/05/05

With further information available here: http://www.drinkboy....itterTruth.html

-Robert Hess
www.DrinkBoy.com

Edited by DrinkBoy, 29 July 2003 - 08:25 PM.


#15 trillium

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Posted 30 July 2003 - 11:04 AM

Mmm...bitters. Does anyone have any good references on the history of differences between bitters in a little bottle that you add to cocktails and the bitters (amari) that come in a big bottle that get mixed more rarely (with the exception of Amer Picon, I guess) but mostly get drunk straight? I'm sure they were related at one time or another. I've been browsing my Gentleman's Companion and haven't run into any of that sort of info, but I admit I get distracted by reading the quaintly racist bits about "chino house boys" and how well they mix drinks out loud to the resident Chinese dude.

A funny story about orange bitters, as regular readers may know, Oregon is not the world's best place to be someone who appreciates a wide variety of booze. I was trying to track down Torani Amer, which is rumored to be a great replacement for Amer Picon, and I called the downtown state run booze store to see if they carried it. When I explained it was an orange bitters the response was no, we don't have it, but we do have Fee Bros. orange bitters. Nice, but not exactly what I was hoping for.

Kyle Phillips has a recipe for making your own amaro, the sort intended to drink as a digestivo (beware of all the bots and cookies miningco likes to write to your hard drive). I haven't tried it yet, but I intend to, maybe this winter. Right now I'm busy making jam and gelati.

regards,
trillium

#16 drcocktail

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 08:51 AM

[Moderator's note: This started out with a quick side question in the "Guide to the Perplexed" thread, but it took on a life of its own, so now it has a thread of its own.]

The question (from Fat Guy): I was at Fairway this morning and noticed they had Angostura Bitters, so I bought some. Now would someone please tell me what bitters are?

FG, bitters are a concentration infusion of one or several flavors in a tincture of alcohol with a bitter constituent. Used both to assuage irritable stomachs and to promote hunger a la aperitif. There are three basic varieties: Aromatic bitters - that's what you just got. It is herbal and spice-based flavor-wise, very very bitter, and usable only in dashes. They cannot be drunk straight, thus even containing much alcohol they could be produced sans license during Prohibition because they were considered non-potable alcohol.

The second type are fruit bitters. Generally flavored witha single main fruit (like orange or peach) they are often backed up with hidden bolstering fruit or spice flavors merely meant to support the primary one. All other characteristics match those of aromatic bitters like Angostura.

The third type are aperitif/digestive bitters. These can be spice and/or fruit/and/or herb-based, but you CAN drink them. Examples are Campari, Amer Picon, Fernet Branca, etc. Even to some extent Jager. These, either diluted or straight, are unto themselves - but of course can also be added to cocktails.

Aren't you sorry you asked?

--Doc.

Edited by JAZ, 10 November 2005 - 11:24 AM.


#17 balmagowry

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 02:58 PM

The second type are fruit bitters. Generally flavored with a single main fruit (like orange or peach) they are often backed up with hidden bolstering fruit or spice flavors merely meant to support the primary one.

To give you an idea of the nature of the spice combinations - the recipe I use for making orange bitters is based on the one from The Gentleman's Companion, and it calls for cardamom, caraway and coriander; 1/2 drachm of each, to 1/2 pound dried orange peel and 1 quart alcohol.

#18 beans

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 03:12 PM

To give you an idea of the nature of the spice combinations - the recipe I use for making orange bitters is based on the one from The Gentleman's Companion, and it calls for cardamom, caraway and coriander; 1/2 drachm of each, to 1/2 pound dried orange peel and 1 quart alcohol.

I bet it is nothing short of wonderful too. :wub:

#19 drcocktail

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 03:20 PM

Chas Baker's is pretty good. They were the first I ever made too. I came to feel they lacked sufficient bitterness.

Remember, if you pretend you're making them commercially, and that you are the Bureau of ATF testing them, they must be too bitter to drink straight. Baker's didn't make that cut, but it is easy to do with one of various bitter herbs. Easiest I find is gentian. Also, Schiefflin used to make my personal fave orange bitters from the 30s through the 60s (Old House Orange Bitters) and theirs had another bolstering ingredient of genius: ginger.

It's not too hard to combine those ingredients into a recipe, but I am mainly all excited about Regan's Orange Bitters #6 which we all believe will be released by Sazerac before the end of the year. You'll love 'em - especially when you hear that the label will depict the noble visage of Lord Regan.

-- The Royal Doctor.

#20 balmagowry

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 03:47 PM

To give you an idea of the nature of the spice combinations - the recipe I use for making orange bitters is based on the one from The Gentleman's Companion, and it calls for cardamom, caraway and coriander; 1/2 drachm of each, to 1/2 pound dried orange peel and 1 quart alcohol.

I bet it is nothing short of wonderful too. :wub:

Can't argue with you there. They go over pretty well. Haven't made a batch in a couple of years (and I have the dried orange peels to show for it, too!).

#21 balmagowry

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 04:08 PM

Chas Baker's is pretty good. They were the first I ever made too. I came to feel they lacked sufficient bitterness.

True, they're not especially bitter, as bitters go, but it wouldn't be difficult to embitter them further if - oh, sorry, I see you've already covered that. Anyway, I was shooting for an old-fashioned sort of flavor; Baker's was about the right period, and it suited my purpose admirably. In fact, the end result came surprisingly close to the sample I was hoping to emulate, the dregs of an old bottle labeled "Virginia Dare."

Remember, if you pretend you're making them commercially, and that you are the Bureau of ATF testing them, they must be too bitter to drink straight. Baker's didn't make that cut, but it is easy to do with one of various bitter herbs. Easiest I find is gentian. Also, Schiefflin used to make my personal fave orange bitters from the 30s through the 60s (Old House Orange Bitters) and theirs had another bolstering ingredient of genius: ginger.

Very fortunately, I never did harbor ambitions of that sort. My bitters-making started out as a joke and continued because it was popular in my circle; I did have some fun with packaging, just for giggles. but Mrs. Knot's Naked Cat Orange Bitters always was, and will remain, strictly private label!

I do have another and much, much nastier recipe (no gentian, but wormwood does the trick handily), one which my mother and I wrote for a book of early 19th-century recipes; it is based on recipes from that period and is sufficiently vile-tasting to satisy the ATF or any other equally masochistic government agency. But frankly... I prefer the mild orange. :wink:

It's not too hard to combine those ingredients into a recipe, but I am mainly all excited about Regan's Orange Bitters #6 which we all believe will be released by Sazerac before the end of the year. You'll love 'em - especially when you hear that the label will depict the noble visage of Lord Regan.

Haven't the slightest doubt I will. I'm sure they'll be wonderful, and I'm even more sure they'll be a lot less work. :unsure: OTOH, for my own limited uses (and I have to confess they are limited - no bartender I), I don't think I'll be in any hurry to give up the eccentricities of Mrs. Knot!

#22 drcocktail

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 04:39 PM

Well they DO bring back memories, and you are so right about the lack of Virginia Dare bitterness. They were an odd product which did not contain alcohol, used mainly for cooking purposes. I loved the bottle, though, didn't you? Matter of fact, you've galvanized me! I'm goin' a-diggin'! (Back in a sec....)

OK, back now. Thought you might like this: Note right in the middle, dear Miss Virginia Dare - found after these many years! And next to her, my oldest bottle of Old House.

Posted Image

It's Orange Bitters heaven!

:biggrin: --Doc.

Edited by drcocktail, 28 March 2004 - 04:40 PM.


#23 balmagowry

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 04:49 PM

OK, back now. Thought you might like this: Note right in the middle, dear Miss Virginia Dare - found after these many years! And next to her, my oldest bottle of Old House.

Hey, I'll be damned - there she is! The only other bottle I've ever seen. We still have ours, though there ain't much left in it and I don't ever remember seeing it used, except for my own small experiments. Way too cool a bottle to junk. It's old enough that I have absolutely no idea of its provenance - must have belonged to my grandparents, but for all I know it might actually have come with the house....

No alcohol at all; funny, I didn't remember that. Maybe I simply blocked it from my mind. :wink:

EDIT to add: How ironic that there should be so many. I began making my own because I couldn't find them for sale anywhere in these parts... 'course that was before the web. I was about to wish that we'd had eGullet back then - but of course if that had been the case I wouldn't ever have had the fun of making my own. Nice to have it both ways now, though!

Edited by balmagowry, 28 March 2004 - 04:54 PM.


#24 drcocktail

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 07:39 PM

I'm listening to some fabulous string music just now (and the music and the "just now" came to me from a Southern Belle girlfriend of mine a long time ago) - well I will pull myself back into the present here in California. Ah, it is luscious, though.

Of the bitters, you are looking at, you can't get a one of them, sad to say. Some of the rarest orange bitters on the planet. Some just old, others like the Field's Orange Bitters considered to be the finest orange bitters EVER produced on earth. Gone since the 40s. Let's do a bottle dating:

From lefty to righty:

1936, 1930s undated, circa 1960, 1930s-1950s, '40s-early '50s, 1947, 1939, 1936, circa 1931.

Point is, we need more bitters, orange and aromatic. We used to have 'em, uncommon as hell now. Bravo Balma for making them. I think and hope we are moving back toward a revival of those tastes, but I admit, I am the far side of that argument. I hope you can relate.

Blah blah woof woof, --Doc.

#25 balmagowry

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Posted 28 March 2004 - 08:31 PM

Of the bitters, you are looking at, you can't get a one of them, sad to say. Some of the rarest orange bitters on the planet. Some just old, others like the Field's Orange Bitters considered to be the finest orange bitters EVER produced on earth. Gone since the 40s. Let's do a bottle dating:

From lefty to righty:

1936, 1930s undated, circa 1960, 1930s-1950s, '40s-early '50s, 1947, 1939, 1936, circa 1931.

And what a beautiful array it is, too. Well, I feel a little vindicated by the realization that the quest really was as difficult as it seemed - but saddened by the loss of so many lovely graceful notes. No wonder you're so excited about the Regan's #6!

I note that bottle #4 is labeled Gordon's - obviously the same logo as on their gin bottles to this day. Wow - I had no idea they had ever been in the bitters racket!

I'm also curious about the Field's bitters - not that the bottles are at all similar, but the name prompts me to wonder whether they are descended from Dr. Field's medicinal Bitters?

Point is, we need more bitters, orange and aromatic. We used to have 'em, uncommon as hell now. Bravo Balma for making them. I think and hope we are moving back toward a revival of those tastes, but I admit, I am the far side of that argument. I hope you can relate.

Die-hards of the world, unite! Yes, of course I can.

#26 balmagowry

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Posted 29 March 2004 - 10:13 AM

Balma, I am not familiar with Dr. Field's medicinal Bitters. Please tell me more. I'm interested.

Not much I can tell you, I'm afraid - actually I only know them through the bottle, which is a distinctive shape and apparently somewhat collectible. Wait a minute... wait a minute... am I confusing Dr. Field with Dr. Fish? Oy, how embarrassing, I might be. If I am, please forget the whole thing...! Anyway, the bottle dates to early 20th century at least, and the good doctor's (whichever doctor he is, eek) name and likeness, along with the word "BITTERS," are embossed on the glass itself. Found one at a yard sale once, bought and cleaned it out well, and filled it with Mrs. Knot's as a gift to a friend who goes through the latter pretty quickly, using it in his own formulation of gin-and-bitters.

Fish...? Field...? Fish...? Field...?

Uh-oh.

#27 drcocktail

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Posted 29 March 2004 - 10:23 AM

No problem, there. I think Fish is right. You are not alone. There is a rich history of mistranscription of bitters in the cocktail world too. First cocktail guide ever published, Jerry Thomas, 1862. When recipes called for aromatic bitters, the text cited Bogart's Bitters. People had been searching them out for years. Problem was, they never existed. It wasn't 'til the new typeset in the 3rd edition of 1887 was it altered to read, correctly, Boker's Bitters. If the Father of the Cocktail can make that mistake, you're in good company!

You folks ARE aware of Fee Bros. Orange Bitters are you not?

Fee Bros. 1-800-961-3337 Rochester, N.Y.
Their website is here.

Warning. Theirs is not as complex flavor-wise as the Baker bitters (or, dare I presume, the Mrs. Knot's Naked Cat Orange Bitters) but they are proudly orange, proudly bitter, and can be adjusted with ease as the basis of other formulae.

So between the availablity of Fees and the anticipation of Regan's, I'm pleased to say we don't live in a world that's gone totally mad.

Gravely, :laugh: --Doc.

Edited for clarity in the face of early morning groggies.

(and edited once more to make for a smooth transition to the new thread. Sorry Doc! -- JAZ)

#28 JAZ

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Posted 29 March 2004 - 11:50 PM

You know, when I was at my favorite spirits shop the other day, I saw that they had Fee Bros. mint bitters and peach bitters too. Anyone tried these?

#29 drcocktail

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Posted 30 March 2004 - 07:43 AM

I was the brain behind Fee's peach bitters. It was a history thing. There were about 30 cocktails calling for peach bitters not made since the 1930s, and Jack Fee and I were talking about it. It had always been his dream, too, to reintroduce them, but he had no formula. I just happened to have a vintage bottle of peach bitters which I unhesitatingly sent right to him. Analyze it! I said. He did, and now we again have peach bitters. Some folks don't like 'em, but I think they're the Bee's Knees.

Mint Bitters, I believe they have discontinued. They were especially compounded for julep-type drinks. It would have been sad to see them go if they weren't so gut-wrenchingly, gorge-risingly horrible. Hope I didn't put too fine a point on that.

--Doc.

#30 JAZ

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Posted 30 March 2004 - 09:16 AM

I was the brain behind Fee's peach bitters. It was a history thing. There were about 30 cocktails calling for peach bitters not made since the 1930s, and Jack Fee and I were talking about it. It had always been his dream, too, to reintroduce them, but he had no formula. I just happened to have a vintage bottle of peach bitters which I unhesitatingly sent right to him. Analyze it! I said. He did, and now we again have peach bitters. Some folks don't like 'em, but I think they're the Bee's Knees.

Mint Bitters, I believe they have discontinued. They were especially compounded for julep-type drinks. It would have been sad to see them go if they weren't so gut-wrenchingly, gorge-risingly horrible. Hope I didn't put too fine a point on that.

--Doc.

Well, then, I guess I'll pick up a bottle of the peach, but not the mint. Too bad; I had hopes for the mint.