Bitters. The name alone turns most people off, but when handled correctly this decidedly herbaceous liquor can create magic on the palate. It can not only encompass bitter elements, but also can include a wide spectrum of spicy, sweet, sour, and so much more. So, let’s get started on our journey to the bitter end.
What is a bitter?
A bitter is a liquid, usually an alcoholic liquor, in which bitter herbs or roots have been suffused. That’s the basis, but a wide variety of other elements can be added to create a unique flavor profile. Common ingredients in bitters recipes include cascarilla, cassis, gentian, orange peel, and quinine from the Cinchona bark.
Developed in the 1800s as “stomachics,” bitters were originally intended as tonics to prevent an upset stomach, improve digestion, and stifle flatulence. While this may seem odd, and not just because they treated gas, their use may actually work. Many of the herbs and/or roots in bitters have been used for generations as treatments to maintain a healthy digestive track. However, when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in the early 20th century, labeling changes were required to remove any unproven medical claims.
Bitters can be broken down into two major groups: cocktail and digestive. Cocktail bitters are typically used for flavoring cocktails in drops or dashes. Angostura bitters is the most widely known of this category. Digestive bitters are typically consumed either neat or with ice at the end of a meal in many European and South American countries. However, many of these have become part of the cocktail culture and play roles in mixed drinks. Campari is one of the most popular in this group.
Getting to know bitters
While we have been using and enjoying bitters in our cocktails for several years, there is still a lot to learn them. With that in mind, we recently joined the staff of H. Harper Station on one of their Staff Education Meetings titled Bitters and Amaros. This was a great opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with a few favorites and get to taste several new bitters. Jerry Slater, the owner and mixologist of H. Harper Station, hosted the tasting and he started the evening with a tasting of cocktail bitters.
Three cocktail bitters, Peychaud’s, Angostura, and Regan’s, were all placed on a single plate to begin the tasting.
This bitter was created around 1830 by Antoine Amédée Peychaud in New Orleans. It has a bright orange color and a citrusy basil scent. Its taste while bitter has subtle sweet, floral elements much like tasting honeysuckle. This is considered the only bitter to be used in the quintessentially New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac.
This bitter was created in 1824 in the town of Angostura, Venezuela by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert. In 1875 the operations were moved to Port of Spain, Trinidad. This bitter has a very dark brown color with a spicy, floral scent. Its flavor reflects the color with strong elements of cinnamon and all spice. Angostura is the go-to bitters when creating a classic Manhattan.
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
This bitter is relatively newcomer and was created in the early 1990s by Gary and Mardee Regan. It is clear in color with a strong orange scent. The flavor is predominantly of orange peel, but is accompanied by white pepper and hints of cardamom. Orange bitters is one of the elements found in the vintage Fairbank Cocktail.
Next, Jerry passed several Amoras (Italian for bitter) around the table and we poured small samples to taste. This was the strongest reason we had for attending the bitters tasting. Many of these digestive bitters we had seen, but had not had an opportunity to try. The selection was varied with each having its own distinctive characteristics.
This amaro was first produced in 1885 in Bologna by Stanislao Cobianchi. Its name was in honor of the marriage between Princess Helen of Montenego and Victor Emmanuel III, the reigning king of Italy at the time. The bitter is a deep brown color with scents of grapefruit and warm lavender. Its flavors combine cherries, oranges, and black tea.
This amaro is wine based and created by Giovanni Bosca with grapes from his estate in the Piedmonte region of Italy. To this base are added to unusual elements, cardoon and Blessed Thistle, before resting in an oak cask for a minimum of six months. The resulting bitter has a lovely port and prune scent. Lemon appears first on the palate when tasting, but the flavor moves quickly to prunes and artichokes on the back end. This was one of our new favorites.
This amaro was first produced in 1868 by Salvatore Averna and remains in the family to this day. It has definite scents of star anise and freshly tilled earth while its flavor reflects sassafras and bittersweet chocolate.
This amaro was first produced in the Marche region of Italy by Silvio Meletti. His sons, Aldo and Silvio, run the company today and had continued to grow many of the bitters components to maintain its quality. Its scent is redolent of sassafras with the flavor being predominately caramel and cardamom.
This amaro is a relative newcomer to the cocktail scene and is wildly popular in most hand-crafted cocktail establishments (try H. Harper Station’s Hope Floats). It owes much of its popularity to a witty and continual marketing campaign (see this) since its introduction to the market place in 1952. Cynar has a very medicinal scent with vague hints of black tea and parsley while is flavor is the most bitter of the amaro we tasted. Its flavors are of hot tea, green peppers, and leather.
This amaro was created in 1845 by Bernardino Branca. Its scent is medicinal with a predominant fragrance of menthol. The flavor is also medicinal with bitter mint and mouth-puckering tannins. Though we didn’t particularly care for this amaro neat, we’ve had it mixed into several cocktails and enjoyed in tremendously. However, we have noticed a trend amongst bartenders to do shots of Fernet after a shift making this quite the Italian “Jagger”.
The bitter end
What did we learn? We learned that while the category is called “bitters,” there’s so much more to these liquors than just the bitter element. The range of flavors available is astounding and has inspired us to try even more. Making it to the bitter end turned out to be even more that we could have hoped.
While H. Harper Station doesn’t have any Staff Education Meetings listed at this time, check out their Facebook site to stay informed. In the meantime, drop by to see how bitters applied at their outstanding bar and restaurant!