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All About Bitters (Part 1)


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Over in the topic on Rogue Cocktails and in the book itself, they're dicussing drinks that use Angostura and Peychaud's bitters as the base of drinks. There's some talk about how economically feasible it would be to serve these at a bar, but I'm wondering how safe it is to drink them. Aren't some of the ingredients in bitters dangerous in large amounts? If you figure that a dash or two of these comes to 1/4 teaspoon, then the two ounces of Peychaud's in the Gunshop Fizz would be 48 times that, which makes me really nervous. Should I be?

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I doubt very much that there's anything in any commercially-available bitters formulations that would be dangerous even if you drank a whole bottle. Most of the "bad stuff" in home bitters formulations (e.g., tonka beans) won't make it into a commercial bitters.

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I'm not suggesting that commercial bitters contain tonka beans. However, there are herbs, barks, and other plant parts that are fine in small amounts but not in larger quantities. Nutmeg, for instance. Apricot or peach pits. That's more the sort of thing I had in mind.

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In the amounts likely to be present in something like bitters, you would very likely become sick from the alcohol before any such substance harmed you.

Consider nutmeg, for example: In order to get any effect from the myristicin in nutmeg, one typically has to eat as much as one to two tablespoons of ground nutmeg. That's enough to flavor what? A gallon of bitters?

Anyone who wants to sell products in the US also has to deal with our rules and regulations which can be quite strict for this sort of thing. The reason real Żubrówka cannot be sold in the US is because the US won't allow even a minute amount of coumarin in the spirit. Similarly, I have my doubts as to whether any amount of amygdalin (the potentially bad stuff in stone fruit kernels) would be allowed. But, just supposing it were allowed, one would also have to drink a lot of bitters to get a harmful dose (i.e., more than a whole bottle of Angostura in one sitting).

Your point is well made that some of these substances may be bad in large doses. But I think it's probably just as likely as it is to develop cinchonism from drinking too many G&Ts. Which is to say that I wouldn't recommend drinking two bottles of Angostura a day, 7 days a week. But even as much as an ounce of Angostura a day isn't likely to be bad for you.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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I made the Angostura Sour this past weekend. I halved the recipe, but for no other reason than I did not want to waste a third of a bottle of bitters in one drink. The thing that surprised me most was the color--it looked like oxidized (brownish) tomato juice. BTW, it was delicious. So far I feel OK other than feeling like having another one.

Another drink with a lot of bitters is the Seelbach Cocktail, with a total 14 dashes.

Edited by brinza (log)

Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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Another drink with a lot of bitters is the Seelbach Cocktail, with a total 14 dashes.

14 dashes is a whole lot less than an ounce or ounce and a half, especially in a champagne cocktail.

True.

Wow, that's different. Sounds good, though. I'd probably like that. I'll have to give it a try.

Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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I just bought a bottle of Fee's Grapefruit Bitters and looking for a place to use them tried

chrisamirault's suggestion of a Pegu Club. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised at just how different the grapefruit bitters made the drink and, I think, may have even improved on one of my favorite cocktails. For those of you looking for a place to use grapefruit bitters, I recommend that you try them in a Pegu Club.

Having now discovered that grapefruit bitters may really be worth having, I'm wondering how Fee's compares to Bitterman's. Can anyone give me a comparison taste-test? Is it worth getting the Bittermans if I already have Fee's? Are they completely different products?

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Got my Bitter Truth Celery Bitters in the mail today. I'll probably start out by trying a Loop Tonic.

2 oz Heradura Silver

1 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth

3/4 oz freshly squeezed lime juice

1/2 oz simple syrup

1/2 oz green Chartreuse

Dash of the Bitter Truth celery bitters

Any one else have other suggestions?

"I'll put anything in my mouth twice." -- Ulterior Epicure
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Got my Bitter Truth Celery Bitters in the mail today. I'll probably start out by trying a Loop Tonic.

2 oz Heradura Silver

1 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth

3/4 oz freshly squeezed lime juice

1/2 oz simple syrup

1/2 oz green Chartreuse

Dash of the Bitter Truth celery bitters

Any one else have other suggestions?

Thats quite a large cocktail (4.75 oz!)...particularly for just one dash of bitters of any kind. What is it's provenance?

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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This drink (from Phil Ward at Mayahuel) goes over ice in a Highball glass, and is meant to be a light refresher. Somehow the Chartreuse and celery bitters potentiate one another. It doesn't need more than one dash of bitters.

This is really the most successful use of the BT celery bitters of which I am aware, most likely due to the bitters-Chartreuse interaction. If I have any criticism of the otherwise excellent Bitter Truth products, it is that they are far less intensely flavored than any other bitters I use, often taking 5 to 7 dashes to equal the same level of impact one might get from one or two dashes of Angostura, Regan's, Peychaud's or a Fee Brothers product.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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This drink (from Phil Ward at Mayahuel) goes over ice in a Highball glass, and is meant to be a light refresher.  Somehow the Chartreuse and celery bitters potentiate one another.  It doesn't need more than one dash of bitters.

This is really the most successful use of the BT celery bitters of which I am aware, most likely due to the bitters-Chartreuse interaction.  If I have any criticism of the otherwise excellent Bitter Truth products, it is that they are far less intensely flavored than any other bitters I use, often taking 5 to 7 dashes to equal the same level of impact one might get from one or two dashes of Angostura, Regan's, Peychaud's or a Fee Brothers product.

I would agree that their aromatic bitters lack concentration, though the orange bitters I love (haven't had the opportunity to try the others except to taste the celery at Anvil). I recall hearing rumours when TBT first came out that the aromatic bitters was based off of Robert Hess' "House Bitters" which would explain the lack of concentration--the quite low proof of them would seem to confirm this. I've also heard that since then they have been reformulated somewhat to compensate.

FWIW though I don't think the Fee's Aromatic are particularly concentrated either, and the glycerin mouthfeel is quite destracting. Sad to say, because it's such a significant company in the cocktail revival, but I can't recall the last time I used their aromatic, or the orange bitters solo.

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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Vieux, are you using the grapefruit bitters exclusively in the Pegu Club (that is, in place of both the Angostura and Orange bitters), or just replacing the Orange? And how many dashes? The PC is one of my favorites (that I don't make often enough) so I'm keen to give this a try.

Answering your question, I do have both the Fee's and Bittermens (sold through TBT) Grapefruit and can tell you they are, standing alone, very different from one another.

On the nose, the Fee's is quite sweet and spicy with just a hint of citrus (I'd be hard-pressed to ID it as grapefruit, or even any kind of citrus, bitters on the basis of its smell alone). The taste is similar, at least to me, sweet and spicy but with a nice bitter edge and a more identifiable grapefruit flavor. I like these quite a lot, but they are not particularly "bitter".

The Bittermens Grapefruit is, to my palate anyway and contrary to Mr. Kinsey's comment above regarding TBT's Celery bitters, more intense in every way. Virtually no sweetness on the nose or the palate, with lots of spice and a very strong bitter backbone. On the palate especially, there's no doubt that these are grapefruit bitters. I like these too, but I would think they'd generate a substantially different result in a mixed drink.

All that said, I've never run a drink taste-test to compare the two. I'd be happy to do so with the PC if you clue me in to how you're making yours!

Cheers,

Mike

"The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind."

- Bogart

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Thanks Mike for the comparison between Fees and Bittermans. It sounds like very different products so I should probably get myself some of the Bittermans.

In the Pegu Club, I substituted the grapefruit for the orange and kept the Angostura. I'm just adding one (healthy) dash of each.

Edited by Vieux Carré (log)
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I use Fee's Grapefruit bitters often. Unlike their Lemon bitters, which are rather monotone (but not bad), the Grapefruit bitters seem to have some complexity and really do add an indefinable something to a cocktail. I find that they work very well with St. Germaine's Elderflower, Lillet, dry vermouth, and even tequila.

As for Fee's Aromatic bitters not being too concentrated, while they don't seem quite as intense as, say Angostura, the flavor is rather pronounced and certainly makes itself known if overdashed. I think the issue with them is that they're not very bitter.

The Bitter Truth's aromatic bitters have a very heavy clove or Allspice topnote. Not a criticism, just an observation. In fact, they could nicely fill in for Allspice Dram if need be. I love the Jerry Thomas's Decanter Bitters. They are a good, versatile aromatic bitter; actually more middle-of-the-road than TBT's Aromatic.

Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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As for Fee's Aromatic bitters not being too concentrated, while they don't seem quite as intense as, say Angostura, the flavor is rather pronounced and certainly makes itself known if overdashed.  I think the issue with them is that they're not very bitter.

I've found lately that the Fee's Aromatic really begins to take over a drink quite dramatically, even after just 1 dash, if not tempered by other bitters. It's fairly disappointing, given its enticing Christmas spice aroma, but I've ruined many-a whiskey-based drink by heavy-handing the Fee's and tasting nothing much more than a glass full of cinnamon.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I just returned from Kalustyan's in NYC, which has radically increased its bitters selection. There were on hand the following:L

Angostura

Angostura Orange

Bitter Truth Aromatic

Bitter Truth Celery

Bitter Truth/Bittermens Grapefruit

Bitter Truth/Bittermens Xocolatl Mole

Fee Bros. Cherry

Fee Bros. Grapefruit

Fee Bros. Lemon

Fee Bros. Mexican Chocolate

Fee Bros. Orange

Fee Bros. Old Fashioned

Fee Bros. Peach

Fee Bros. Rhubarb

Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel Aged 2009

Peychaud's

Regan's Orange

I hadn't tried (or known about!) Fee's Mexican Chocolate Bitters. Interested to try them.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Does anyone else have the problem of the labels on their Fee Brothers bitters bottles becoming damp and not drying? Fee Brothers bitters have a high glycerin content, particularly the fruit-flavored ones which apparently have no alcohol. It seems that if some of the bitters drip down onto the bottle's paper label, the glycerin remains in the paper and continues to absorb moisture from the air, resulting in a damp spot that continues to grow rather than dry up. And it's not just Fee's. I have also noticed that the sticker on the neck of my bottle of Angostura Orange is perpetually damp. Angostura Orange also contains glycerin and is lower in alcohol than standard Angostura. Is there a recommended way to get these labels to dry out?

Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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Ah - it's very cool that Kalustyan's has the Xocolatl Mole and Grapefruit... we're starting to get into retail worldwide!

Avery Glasser

Bittermens, Inc. - Producers of Bittermens Bitters & Extracts

Bittermens Spirits, Inc. - Purveyors of Small Batch Bitter Liqueurs

Vendetta Spirits, LLC. - Nano-Importer of Hand-Produced Spirits

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You're SOL once the glycerin gets on there. Potentially you could try getting it off by putting the bottle in a jar of alcohol.

I know this is going to sound horribly petty - but the best way to avoid this situation is just not to purchase bitters that contain glycerin (or artificial flavors).

Avery Glasser

Bittermens, Inc. - Producers of Bittermens Bitters & Extracts

Bittermens Spirits, Inc. - Purveyors of Small Batch Bitter Liqueurs

Vendetta Spirits, LLC. - Nano-Importer of Hand-Produced Spirits

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You're SOL once the glycerin gets on there. Potentially you could try getting it off by putting the bottle in a jar of alcohol.

I know this is going to sound horribly petty - but the best way to avoid this situation is just not to purchase bitters that contain glycerin (or artificial flavors).

Yes, it does sound horribly petty, in a "Get a MAC" sort of way that is an inevitable response when any PC/Windows question is asked anywhere on the internet, which, of course, offers no help to the problem being discussed (sad to see that type of thing occur on a forum like this). It wasn't all that long ago that, in the U.S. at least, the only bitters that were widely and readily available were Angostura. When people starting finding out about Fee's they bought them sight unseen, not knowing what they were made of. A lot of people are still learning what is good and bad about different kinds of bitters and that they have more choices than they might have first thought.

Please enlighten us as to why some bitters manufacturers would use glycerin in the first place and why it is undesirable. Is it just a cheaper neutral base than alcohol?

Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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