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All About Bitters (Part 1)


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Glycerin isn't a replacement or supplement for the Alcohol. The Neutral Grain Spirits (or other alcohol used by bitters makers) act as a solvent, liberating essential oils from the herbs/peels/spices. Glycerin doesn't have any real solvent qualities for it, so it's not useful for pulling flavors out.

Glycerin in itself is just a texturizing agent, it's a little sweet, but not enough that you would use it as a primary sweetener. What it does do very well is trap oils and other volatile compounds. It also prevents louching, which is a big problem when you add alot of oil into an alcohol/water solution.

The problem is this - Glycerin isn't food. It's a chemical additive - typically a byproduct of soap making used as a humectant (keeps things moist/wet) and a partial preservative. It makes things feel artificially smooth, rich and syrupy.

If you're looking to make a very inexpensive bitter, very quickly, you can simply purchase essential oils, tinctures and artificial flavors, add some pure alcohol to bring the volatile aromatics out more into the solution, then add water to stretch the small amount of oils to reduce the cost, and then add in glycerin to stabilize and trap the flavors. The end result is that you can use significantly smaller amounts of the expensive essential oils/tinctures and still have something that resembles a classically-made bitter. Using this method, you don't need to do any aging. Just mix it up and it'll stay together. - but it tends to result in products that are thin in flavor and lack the complexity that comes with using whole herbs, spices, peels and essential oils and letting them mature together over the period of weeks.

So, you can come to your own conclusions. For me, I try to avoid liquors, liqueurs and bitters that use glycerin. It just isn't necessary. With that said, I do have a few different Fee's in the house. I quite like the NY standard of Fee's Orange/Regans Orange done 50/50 - and the barrel aged works well in many drinks.

Just on one other small note - I was cracking a little joke at Joe's (Fee) expense. Karmically, he owes us a couple after copying paying tribute with his "Aztec Chocolate" :) Get to know people a little before naturally assuming they're just snarky a-holes (though in my case, I'm not sure that would be far off)! That and a couple of good tiki drinks will keep you from getting high blood pressure over things like bitters conversations on eGullet :biggrin:

Edited by BittermensAG (log)

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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The problem is this - Glycerin isn't food. It's a chemical additive - typically a byproduct of soap making used as a humectant (keeps things moist/wet) and a partial preservative. It makes things feel artificially smooth, rich and syrupy.

Thanks for the otherwise useful information, but I have to take exception to the above.

Yes, glycerol can be described as a "hygroscopic trihydroxy alcohol usually obtained by the saponification of fats." But, so could high proof alcohol be described as a "simple aliphatic alcohol formally derived from ethane, usually obtained by the digestion of sugars by fungi and volatility-mediated purification." The point being that glycerol can hardly be considered any more "artificial" and "not a food" than alcohol itself. Both are obtained from naturally-occurring substances, both are purified by various technological means, both are digestible, and both have caloric value.

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Samuel - I bow to your significantly more comprehensive knowledge of food chemistry! I'd edit my post to correct the mis-statement, but damn - that's a great response you have there and wouldn't want it to be out of context!

Still, food or not, I really prefer not to consume glycerin if I don't have to...

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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Oh, and just to clarify - I wasn't at all trying to insinuate that the process I was describing was the process that Fee Brothers uses. I was just describing a worst case scenario of how glycerin can be used by an unscrupulous producer of bitters or liqueurs to make a cheap product.

Edited by BittermensAG (log)

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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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 4 weeks later...

I agree. The more I fiddle around with these at home, the more I am convinced I'll never touch the level of the Angostura bitters.

It has to be remembered that cold compounding won't give you the same depth of flavour as is gained from distillation (or specifically rectification which I believe is the production method behind Angostura Aromatic).

I am toying with the idea of setting up a still but due to financial restrictions it's just not feasible to be honest, even more-so when you throw in the extra taxation (Angostura is not classed as alcohol in the UK) and it's a logistical nightmare.

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Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters - Bitters

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've been busy playing around in the lab (well, OK, my kitchen), and came up with two new flavors: Bacon Bitters and Chocolate/Chili Bitters. For each, I used the Hess House Bitters recipe as a base, divided the infused rye into two parts, and the same with the water after simmering and infusing the solids.

For the Bacon Bitters I fat washed the alcohol with some good smokey bacon drippings, and used maple syrup to sweeten. The result? Really lovely aromatic bitters, but not a hint of the bacony flavor I was hoping for. I may try another fat wash, or just enjoy them as is.

For the chocolate/chili bitters I infused strained mixture with roasted cacao nibs, and ancho, cayenne, and chipotle powders, then caramelized some demerara sugar and added that and the reserved water to the alcohol. These absolutely blew my mind. I haven't tried the Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters yet, so I can't compare, but I think they're far more flavorful and complex than the Fee Brothers' Aztec Bitters. I've only just started experimenting with them, mostly by adding a dash to various spirits and liqueurs to see how well they play together. So far, they're great with tequila and rum, and mind bogglingly good with St. Germain, Canton Ginger, and Santa Teresa Rhum Orange. I already have another batch in the works.

16045_173474927273_557902273_3435076_5328952_n.jpg

"Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other." - W. Somerset Maugham

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  • 1 month later...

Hi All.

Santa brought me a mixed grab-bag of bitters yesterday: Angostura Orange, Regan's Orange #6, Peychaud's, Fee's Lemon, and Fee's Peach (to go along with the Angostura Aromatic and Fee's Old Fashioned that I already have).

I've searched this board for the following question but couldn't find anything related (but please forgive me if this has already been discussed over and over). So here goes:

Does anyone know of a good drink (or drinks) that highlight the differences in the different bitters? I'm thinking of making one drink in several tiny portions and then trying different combinations of bitters. I'm pretty sure I'll have to test the Lemon and Peach in a separate drink, since they're so different than the aromatic and orange bitters.

A related question would be.. For each bottle of bitters, what is the best drink to show off its best qualities?

Thanks,

Dan

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Dan, in terms of exploring the differences between different bitters, you could do a lot worse than an Old Fashioned. One of the benefits is that you can change the base spirit to suit the bitters: you might try the Regan's orange and Peychaud's with rye, but the Fee's lemon with tequila or genever, for instance.

Also, Ted Haigh's column in a recent Imbibe magazine point to the Allegheny as a good cocktail for experimenting with different bitters. Give it a try.

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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The Old Fashioned works well of course but if you want to try them all with a clean palate, just try dashing a tsp or so into a glass of soda water. Also, taste them straight! you learn a lot about bitters by doing that, and while it will be something of a surprise the first time, eventually your palate will become accustomed to the intensity.

Andy Arrington

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Should've really posted this in here; :unsure:

Bottled the first batch of my new bitters this week (just waiting on a run of labels);

570fdfa131.jpg

20 bottles are already going to the US and 20 bottles will be staying on this side of the pond (UK), with a larger batch soon to follow.

If you've ever tried Dandelion & Burdock (Fentiman's have a great bottling) you'll get the idea of the intense/complex flavour profile I've been trying to capture in bitter formula (without the sweetness): floral, earthy, woody, aniseed, citrus, spice, muscovado, liquorice, malt, honey...

Very, very happy with the final product although I'll be looking for any/all feedback to improve them where possible.

Evo-lution - Consultancy, Training and Events

Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters - Bitters

The Jerry Thomas Project - Tipplings and musings

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Santa brought me a mixed grab-bag of bitters yesterday: Angostura Orange, Regan's Orange #6, Peychaud's, Fee's Lemon, and Fee's Peach (to go along with the Angostura Aromatic and Fee's Old Fashioned that I already have).

...

Does anyone know of a good drink (or drinks) that highlight the differences in the different bitters?

Given that selection, I'd do a 1:1 or 2:1 Martini with an earthy gin like Plymouth and avoiding big vermouths like Vya. No twist: better to pick up the aromatic qualities.

Chris Amirault

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I think the best way to assess bitters for the first time is to splash a few drops into some club soda and sip it. You'll get a fairly clear sense of the flavor, aroma and aftertaste that way. Of course, making a cocktail doesn't usually have steep barriers to entry, either. :smile:

=R=

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I thought that, too, but learned when I was trying to find uses for bitters that tasting things while they're in a possible application was often far more instructive. For example, Adam's Boker's bitters really work wonders in most gin drinks, but are less successful with rye and bourbon drinks. It's hard to pick that up in a fairly neutral medium like soda. Both, maybe, is the way to go...

Chris Amirault

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I thought that, too, but learned when I was trying to find uses for bitters that tasting things while they're in a possible application was often far more instructive. For example, Adam's Boker's bitters really work wonders in most gin drinks, but are less successful with rye and bourbon drinks. It's hard to pick that up in a fairly neutral medium like soda. Both, maybe, is the way to go...

Off-topic to the point at hand, but this gave me a thought on the Bokers. I haven't tasted them but assuming they are an accurate facsimile of Bokers, I wonder if that could be a clue as to their decline in popularity while Angostura was on the rise: Whiskey became more and more popular as a cocktail ingredient after the Civil War, and Angostura works just dandy with gin as well as Bourbon or Rye. Pure speculation of course but I'd be curious to know how they work with Cognac, the other popular spirit of the antebellum cocktail scene. From the recipes that have been suggested, seems like it would work quite well.

Andy Arrington

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Off-topic to the point at hand, but this gave me a thought on the Bokers. I haven't tasted them but assuming they are an accurate facsimile of Bokers, I wonder if that could be a clue as to their decline in popularity while Angostura was on the rise:

Prohibition. :sad:

Evo-lution - Consultancy, Training and Events

Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters - Bitters

The Jerry Thomas Project - Tipplings and musings

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Off-topic to the point at hand, but this gave me a thought on the Bokers. I haven't tasted them but assuming they are an accurate facsimile of Bokers, I wonder if that could be a clue as to their decline in popularity while Angostura was on the rise:

Prohibition. :sad:

I remember reading all that very interesting info you dug up on Bokers some time back but I guess I had forgotten that. I guess I was basing my speculation on the fewer times it was called for by name as time went on, but it seems probably that then as now more bitters became available as cocktails increased in popularity, offering more options.

Edit for clarity.

Edited by thirtyoneknots (log)

Andy Arrington

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Thanks for all the suggestions. Yesterday I mixed up a bunch of one-quarter-sized Old Fashioneds to test the various bitters combinations. (1/2 oz Eagle Rare 10 yr, 1/4 tsp simple, 1/2 dash bitters, orange peel). While I was able to learn the effects that different combinations and ratios of the various bitters have on that drink, end the end I (re)discovered that the best combination for an Old Fashioned is simply 2 dashes (in a normal-sized drink) of Angostura.

Chris: Good idea. I think I'll try the Martini test next. Sampling them with Gin sounds like it will reveal a whole different side.

Also -- The day I received them, I did try a few drops of each of the bitters straight up. Also very informative.

Thanks again. If you have any more suggestions, I'll try them too.

Dan

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Chris,

Do vermouth and bitters go bad? I can see the vermouth, since it's a fortified wine, but what about the bitters? I thought they basically lasted forever..

"...which usually means underflavored, undersalted modern French cooking hidden under edible flowers and Mexican fruits."

- Jeffrey Steingarten, in reference to "California Cuisine".

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Chris,

Do vermouth and bitters go bad? I can see the vermouth, since it's a fortified wine, but what about the bitters? I thought they basically lasted forever..

If I may be so presumptuous as to answer for Mr. Amirault, I think what he is meaning to say is that what unfortunately passes for a Manhattan in many parts includes vermouth of questionable provenance while simultaneously excluding the bitters. While bitters could theoretically lose some of their zing over a very long time span, this would normally occur in a time period longer than most bars exist in.

Andy Arrington

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I wouldn't say that they go "bad," but they definitely get old. In particular, the flavors dull and the nose becomes muted. Someone more enlightened than I am can explain why, but you can easily test the what yourself.

The next time that you buy a new bottle of Angostura bitters, on the way home stop by a hotel, a dive bar, or any other place where their bottle is likely to be old enough to drink. If you crack open the new bottle and put it side-to-side with the old one, you'll immediately notice that the new one is pumping out aromatics while the old one is pretty flat. The same is true on your tongue: that new bottle will be extremely complex, long, and spicy, whereas the old one will have lost much of its nuance and power.

Chris Amirault

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I wouldn't say that they go "bad," but they definitely get old. In particular, the flavors dull and the nose becomes muted. Someone more enlightened than I am can explain why, but you can easily test the what yourself.

The next time that you buy a new bottle of Angostura bitters, on the way home stop by a hotel, a dive bar, or any other place where their bottle is likely to be old enough to drink. If you crack open the new bottle and put it side-to-side with the old one, you'll immediately notice that the new one is pumping out aromatics while the old one is pretty flat. The same is true on your tongue: that new bottle will be extremely complex, long, and spicy, whereas the old one will have lost much of its nuance and power.

I guess I go through bitters fast enough that I haven't really noticed that kind of thing before--very interesting. I'd imagine it is a side effect of the volatile compounds evaporating over time, and/or oxidation.

Andy Arrington

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Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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One would expect there to be some effect on a half-full bottle of bitters that had sat mostly open or insufficently closed on a dusty shelf for 10 years. But a tightly closed bottle kept out of the sunlight should stay pretty lively for quite some time.

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