Salt is to food as ___ is to cocktails.
If you guessed the missing “dash” as bitters, then you’re right! Bitters are what define cocktails in today’s world. A quality bartender will always use bitters in his or her cocktails, and it is usually defined as the ingredient that gives the cocktail its “character”.
Bitters are a common ingredient in every bar. If a bar doesn’t stock bitters, then you should probably never visit that bar again!
In fact, in 1806, the very first published definition of the word Cocktail appeared in an editorial response in The Balance and Columbian Repository. This read: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” It is this definition of ingredients that we continue to use when referring to the ‘ideal’ cocktail. This drink was commonly known as the “Bittered Sling”. It is quite clear that bitters have been used for over 200 years, maybe more, in cocktails.
Looking back into the history of bitters, most bitters brands began as medicinal tonics and soon found a place in cocktails, too. They added a certain kick to the cocktails and were used by the dash. Bitters are composed of a variety of ingredients like herbs, fruits, spices, roots and even vegetables.
One brand that made its mark in the world of Bitters is Angostura Aromatic Bitters, whose recipe was created by German scientist, Dr. Benjamin Siegert, in Venezuela, in a little known town called Angostura where he experimented with different herbs and spices to create a recipe to cure stomach ailments for the soldiers of the army. Little did he know that this recipe would create a mark in the world of cocktails and give birth to some of the most famous classics like the Pink Gin, the Manhattan or the Old Fashioned.
Apart from Angostura, Antoine Amédée Peychaud created Peychaud’s bitters in 1830. Peychaud’s is best known as the bitters in the Sazerac cocktail. Both the cocktail and the bitters are strongly linked to New Orleans. Peychaud’s is quite versatile in drinks, as it’s not as heavy as most bitters. Some of the most famous cocktails with Peychaud’s bitters include – Vieux Carre and the Sazerac.
Over the decades, many styles of bitters entered circulation with brands like Boker’s, Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth, and Abbott’s. This gave rise to bartenders from across the world to create their own house style of bitters.
Some of the most famous brands of bitters, or rather bitters you should get your hands on are listed below, be sure to pick up a bottle (or two) if you ever spot them anywhere.
- Angostura Aromatic Bitters & Angostura Orange Bitters
- Peychaud’s Bitters
- Fee Brothers Bitters
- Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
- The Bitter Truth Bitters
- Bittermens bitters
- Boker’s bitters
Professionals from across the world today are now marketing their own bitters with a whole range of flavors from cherry to celery to chocolate to peach to name it, and it’s probably been made already!
If you’re an avid cocktail home bartender, making bitters is a great DIY experiment and if you are a cocktailian it’s the most natural thing to do! But be advised, this takes a lot of time and patience. Bring together the most obscure ingredients and you’ll be able to create something out of the ordinary, keep in mind that if you’re creating a house made bitters, keep a balance of all ingredients and ensure that there is some amount of sweetness and it’s easy to create cocktails, too, with the bitters. The entire infusion process could take about 2 weeks to a month.
Here are a couple easy recipes to start off with.
Bitter Gourd Bitters
- 200 ml Vodka
- 2 bitter gourds, sliced
- 4 to 5 orange peels
- 2 tsp Orange marmalade
Add the above ingredients to a cream canister and mix well. Inject one capsule of CO2 and allow resting for about 72 hours – your Karela bitters is ready! Can also be made in a sealable jar but this would take at least 2 weeks.
The Tom Collins or even a Mojito would make for some great drinks with that added touch of the Karela bitters, you’ll be surprised how great they taste. Make a few batches of these and gift them to your friends, I’m sure they’ll appreciate your effort and of course innovate with their own drinks.
If you want to take things up a notch, try this recipe.
- 1 cup Celery, chopped
- 1/4th cup Celery seeds
- 10 to 12 mint leaves
- 3 to 4 lemon peels
- Sugar syrup
- ½ tsp Gentian root
- 200 ml Vodka (high proof)
- 100 ml water
- In a sealable jar, add celery, mint leaves, lemon peel and gently muddle.
- Then add the vodka, celery seeds, gentian root and about 15 ml of sugar syrup.
- Allow this to rest for about 2 weeks, ensure that you shake the mix every day.
- After two weeks, strain out the liquid.
- Keep the liquid back in the jar
- Take all the solids and add to a pan with water and heat gently for about 10 minutes. Some of the water should evaporate.
- Add the contents back to the jar and store for about 4 more days.
- Strain out the solids with a muslin cloth and voila! Your bitters is ready.
- You can use this up for about a year.
Add a few dashes of these to a Bloody Mary, gives the drink a nice twist.
Cook with bitters!
You don’t have to stick to just cocktails — bitters can add some depth and flavour to your cooking as well. Add a few dashes to your marinades, salads, even soups or gravies!