To the uninitiated, their worldview of cocktail bitters begins and ends in the refrigerator with that weird bottle with the over-sized wrapper. But since we’re in the kitchen, imagine just one spice in the spice rack. This is how the dedicated cocktail enthusiast, the mixology maven, the drink-making mad scientist looks at cocktail bitters—as a vast array of spices on the shelf. And exactly like that perfect seasoning you would add to your favorite dish, choosing the right bitters for a drink is often the difference between that supremely rewarding “Ahh! This is it!” moment, and that most disappointing “Meh.” Another cooking analogy: that meal you painstakingly prepared, you take the first bite and there’s something missing. You reach for the salt, add a few shakes, stir it up, and voilà! The salt like magic brings out the flavors, makes them pop, and suddenly, everyone is smiling as they gleefully devour it!
The history of bitters goes back to ancient Egypt, where medicinal herbs were infused in wine. In the Middle Ages, they were added to distilled alcohol, and were used as remedies for stomach ailments. In the New World, in America, some of the most popular brands sold today as digestifs and cocktail bitters were originally developed and marketed as “patent medicines”; cure-alls and panaceas containing myriad exotic, and often secret, ingredients. Some were even said to include snake oil, hence, the term “snake oil salesman”, as these so-called “miracle elixirs” were purported to cure everything from gout to catarrh, from shingles to dropsy. Although they offered no relief whatsoever if you were tarred and feathered, which was the sorry fate met by more than a few of these traveling charlatans.
For the mixologist, the history of bitters in relation to cocktails dates back to the turn of the 19th century, in America. By 1806, a new word, “cocktail”, had appeared, describing a new kind of beverage. And as you can imagine, this beverage soon became widely popular. It was described generically as a stimulating liquor containing four distinctive parts: spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters (which held on to their medicinal cachet, their addition implying a salutary effect by the consumption of said cocktail). In fact, three of the most popular bitters of today, date back to those early times when the first cocktails were born. Angostura bitters (also known as aromatic bitters, were originally used by sailors as a remedy for sea-sickness), orange bitters (made from the rinds of Seville or “sour” oranges brought over by Spanish explorers), and Peychaud’s (which was invented by a New Orleans apothecary, and became an essential ingredient in "The Sazerac". See my RETRO COCKTAIL for November, 2016: THE SAZERAC).
Today, in the vast and excitingly inventive cocktail culture, there are bitters of every kind from all over the world, from chocolate to rhubarb, from lavender to smoked chili. And while some can still be taken to aid digestion, they are most commonly used, and celebrated, as that finishing touch of a cocktail. Those last few drops that bring out the flavors. That definitive dash that makes the drink come together as something complete, delicious, and memorable.
For a comprehensive look at bitters, please check out this excellent book!
BITTERS: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All
by Brad Thomas Parsons
Cocktail bitters today. I haven't been able to find Burdock Blood bitters...