From homemade to barrel-aged, the smallest bottle on the backbar is making a big comeback. Neil Ridley takes a long overdue look at a category where expression is all
Just a few years ago, the bitters count on your average backbar would be one, possibly two bottles – three or more and you knew that you were dealing with a serious drinks anorak. But the last 12 months have seen the arrival of a smorgasbord of new releases in a dizzying array of aromas and flavours – some recreations of vintage recipes and others entirely new – that are bringing sparkle to cocktail lists everywhere. At the same time, a growing number of bartenders are also starting to embrace the DIY approach, mixing up their own unique formulations with the help of a burgeoning number of online forums and blogs that celebrate bitters.
By definition, bitters are derived from macerating a blend of herbs, spices and other aromatic botanicals in high-strength alcohol. Recipes vary enormously, ranging from traditional celery-based infusions, to spicy Creole-influenced recipes of the Deep South, and whisky barrel-aged styles, producing an intense and powerful bittersweet flavour. Once bottled, an abv of 30-45% ensures that their impact remains intact, so that a few drops can go a long way, bringing out the key characteristics of a cocktail.
But bitters were, of course, originally created for medicinal, rather than mixological, purposes. The first commercially available brands of the mid-19th century offered relief from all manner of ailments including upset stomachs as well as more serious complaints such as malaria and jaundice. Then companies including Siegert’s, Drake’s and Boker’s began selling bottles through saloons as well as apothecaries, where they became a popular addition to mixed drinks, particularly in the instances when good quality spirits were in limited supply, which, in the Gold Rush saloons of west coast America, was often.
The widely held belief was that a measure of Boker’s, Stoughton’s or Hostetter’s bitters in your drink would not only vastly improve the flavour and complexity of a cocktail, it would also act as an invigorating pick-me-up and add to the body’s natural resistance against infection.
In fact, there was little scientific evidence to suggest that consumers were offered any benefit from bitters, but that did little to dispel their growth, and counterfeit bottlings started to spring up, often being cut with far cheaper ingredients, such as strychnine.
Over the last three years, the thirst for flavours
of the past has compelled a number of other
bartenders to launch re-formulations of their own
One company that decided to combat this was the House of Angostura, which went to court to protect its exclusivity. This was to prove pivotal to the company’s future as, just around the corner, was a major turning point in the lifespan of bitters: the 1906 Pure Food & Drugs Act.
This act brought an end to companies making erroneous claims about their ‘cure all’ products, and the bitters market all but collapsed. Just a few years later, the arrival of Prohibition in 1919 was the final nail in the coffin.
Angostura bitters, however, managed to survive – largely due to the fact that it was produced outside of the US – giving it a virtual monopoly on the market when Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
But the bitters story doesn’t really start to pick up again until the 1990s, when the first of a few renaissance men started to re-establish their rightful place at the heart of the cocktail – key among them was New York bartending legend Gary Regan who launched his own ‘Regan’s Recipe’ for traditional orange bitters.
And so began the category’s steady reinvigoration, with the traditional Fee Brothers brand bringing a wider palate of fruit flavours into the mix, and the long lost Peychaud’s bitters once again restoring a heady aromatic bite to the classic Sazerac cocktail.
Over the last three years, the thirst for flavours of the past has compelled a number of other bartenders to launch re-formulations of their own. Aberdeen-based consultant Adam Elmegirab is one such man.
‘My original idea was to start “The Jerry Thomas Project”, which began about 18 months ago, sourcing and recreating recipes collated by the legendary bartender himself,’ he explains. ‘The idea was to see just how different the drinks would taste today, using modern takes on old ingredients.
Fruity, spicy, chocolatey
Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters
Dr Adam Elmegirab Boker’s Bitters
Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters
Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6
‘A lot of Jerry’s recipes, like the Japanese cocktail and Manhattan, mentioned the use of Boker’s bitters, but there is very little still in existence and what does exist has almost certainly changed in the bottle over time.’
(A small amount of the original formulation is owned by The Portobello Star, the west London gaff presided over by Jake Burger, where one can sample it in an authentic Harry Johnson Brandy Crusta recipe from 1882 – for the princely sum of £100.)
And so, Elmegirab set about retracing the steps in the history of Boker’s, with the goal of making an accurate modern representation of the original recipe. ‘I initially contacted the descendents of the Boker’s company to help source some original recipes, which proved difficult, but together, we managed to unearth a number of different recipes – including three to four counterfeit recipes – dating back to 1835. I noticed the original recipes were heavy on the cardamom and coffee notes, so started to refine the mixture of botanicals, initially producing a batch of 150 bottles,’ he says.
The response to the product was overwhelming, by all accounts, and Elmegirab is now producing larger quantities for bitter-curious bartenders all over the world.
Munich-based bartenders and bitters alchemists Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck, AKA The Bitter Truth, started their company in 2006 when they struggled to find the bitters on their home turf: ‘In Germany, there was no real range of bitters and we used to stock up on bottles when we came over to London!’ says Berg.
One of their most successful formulations has been a re-creation of a Jerry Thomas recipe for aromatic bitters, the ingredients for which initially proved problematic.
‘Stephan owned an original edition of (Jerry Thomas’) The Bartenders Guide which includes his recipe for making bitters,’ says Hauck. ‘So we had planned to make about 200 limited edition bottles. But the recipe contains snakeroot, which is known to cause renal problems if ingested in large quantities. So in order to find an alternative flavour, we had to make up a batch that included it, and poison ourselves… in the name of Jerry Thomas!’
‘They work amazingly with dark spirits in particular – lifting
vanilla, tobacco and wood notes and accentuating spice’
Thankfully for all concerned, a similar flavour was found and The Bitter Truth recreation bottling has since gone on to be recognised with several awards for its ingenuity and quality.
Ryan Chetiyawardana of 69 Colebrooke Row uses a wide range of bitters, including his own formulation of salt and pepper bitters, which he uses in a Flip recipe featuring añejo tequila and orange marmalade.
‘The main flavour profile came from white, pink, black and green peppercorns and fleur de sel,’ he explains. ‘They work amazingly with dark spirits in particular – lifting vanilla, tobacco and wood notes, emphasising sweetness, and accentuating spice.’
‘I think the most important thing,’ he adds, ‘is to use bitters as a way of balancing the flavours in a drink, rather than adding too much additional flavour. Think of them as a seasoning.’
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Some top tips for making your own bitters