The Bottles – Bitters
On Nov. 9, 2010, we replaced Peychaud’s Bitters with Orange Bitters. For temporary purposes, this post will remain as is; however, please see here for the reason behind the switch and more on Orange Bitters.
Liver complaints. Headache. Biliousness. Indigestion. Loss of appetite. Colds. Fever and Ague. Coughs. Palpitation. Jaundice. Salt Rheum. Constipation. Dyspepsia. Humors. Diarrhea. Fever Sores. Colic. Sour Stomach. General Debility. And all diseases of an impure state of the blood.
Bitters cures them all.
At least, that’s what the bitters-mongers would have had you believe. If you’ve seen even one Western, then you’re sure to remember the huckster peddling snake oil out of the back of his wagon. What was in that magical elixir? You guessed it — bitters. So what are they?
Basically, botanicals and citrus steeped in alcohol. In today’s world of Whole Foods and herbal remedies, the concept of taking a “natural” supplement really doesn’t seem that crazy. Well, it didn’t two-hundred years ago either. Why pay a visit to the doctor (assuming there was a doctor within a day’s ride) for each little ache and pain when one little bottle could cure them all?
Without straying too far into the ephemera of the tiny, tart bottles, let’s cut to the chase and state, flat-out why bitters need to be in your bar: because bitters turned the lowly Sling (spirit, water, and sugar) into the magnificent Cocktail (spirit, water, sugar, and bitters). We’ll cover the recipes for both very soon, but suffice it to say, that you’ll probably only whip-up a Sling once — without the bitters, there’s really no reason for it. One of the best rationales I’ve heard for bitters is that they are to mixed drinks what salt is to food. The goal isn’t to make the food salty (or the drink bitter); it’s to enhance the flavor of the other elements. Bitters keep your taste buds sharpened so you can truly appreciate the company they keep.
On their own, bitters more than live up to their name, and despite their purported health benefits, they were really hard to, uh, swallow. It was the Cocktail that really brought bitters home. Mix bitters with some alcohol and take each morning for the “constitution” — well, that’s something our forefathers could really get behind. Especially, as doing so was supposed to be good for them.
There are plenty of bitters on the market today, but much fewer than there were in the 19th Century, when each barkeep was likely to have compounded his own (a practice to which many renaissance drink-makers have returned). The two bottles presented here, however, are more than enough to get you started. Why two? Peychaud’s and Angostura have pretty different profiles. Peychaud’s, from New Orleans, is sweeter and is the choice for anything other than gin and rum. From Trinidad, Angostura pairs naturally well with sea-faring spirits (gin and rum, specifically) as well as, oddly enough, jelly, grapefruit, and sherbet (as advocated by the 1908 Angostura Bitters Drink Guide). In general, go with what the recipe tells you, or err as above or to your taste.
Once you have a taste for the stuff, feel free to branch out and pick up some Orange Bitters (Fee Bros. or Regan’s) or whip up your own batch of Boker’s or Stoughton’s (again, head for the Google). Your guests will be more than impressed, and you’ll truly appreciate the magic in the little bottles.
Esoterica: The world of “medicinal tonics” hasn’t completely left bitters behind. Mr Harris’s Original Pick Me Up, available exclusively at London’s D R Harris & Company, was favored by England’s Queen Mother, and D R Harris & Company have been chemists to the gentry for more than 200 years. Pop by today and pick up a fresh batch.