Electioneering Potions: On Bitters

The oldest known definition of a cocktail holds that, officially, a cocktail = spirits + sugar + water + bitters. It also makes mention of the cocktail’s effectiveness as an “electioneering potion,” as a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.

Given that we are having some difficulty swallowing the results of this election, we wanted to feature some of the tried and true potions we know can get the job done. So indulge your bitter mood & join us for a little history lesson on that particular component of the cocktail equation.

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Angostura Bitters

Date of origin: 1824
Place of origin: Venezuela
Tastes: Complex, like a secret recipe should be! But I taste cinnamon or clove and something that isn’t exactly “earthy” by the foodie definition, but tastes very much a part of the earth.

These were first bottled as Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters, named after the German doctor who came up with the recipe during his time as Surgeon General in Simón Bolívar’s army. The town of Angostura, now Ciudad Bolívar, continued to produce the tonic and began exporting it in 1853. By 1875, the plant was relocated to Trinidad, where it remains to this day. According to the Angostura company, only five people are in possession of the exact formula, but there’s good logic behind the view that Dr. Siegert sourced his ingredients locally, probably borrowing from the Amerindians.

Siegert’s son brought the bitters to England in 1862, where they were first recognized as a cure for seasickness. They quickly became the cure for another kind of ailment after some genius added them to gin, named it the Pink Gin and changed drinking culture forever.

Angostura is probably best known as an ingredient in an Old Fashioned, but is also used in champagne cocktails, Manhattans, and all variety of rum punches. They still hold up as a stomach settler when mixed with soda, and are a the tastiest cure for hiccups I’ve come across. Jury’s still out on that one though.

No matter what, they are a crucial part of the bar-scape. Apparently there was a mix up with the bottle supplier back in 2009, and a worldwide Angostura shortage ensued. (More dire than the lime shortage of 2014? The avocado shortage of the future?) Anyway, happy to have them back, as they are an important part of this Old Fashioned recipe.

OLD FASHIONED

2 oz bourbon
4 dashes Angostura
1 sugar cube
orange wheel & maraschino cherry

Muddle sugar and bitters in a lowball glass. Remove orange and add ice and whiskey. Serve with an orange wheel and cherry garnish.


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Orange Bitters

Date of origin: Mid-19th century. Nobody really knows, save for a mention in the Bartender’s Guide from 1862, meaning someone had started bottling them before then.
Place of origin: unknown
Tastes: depends on the brand! Some go clove heavy, others more cardamom. Some add fennel or star anise.

While the flavor profile of orange bitters is easier to suss out with a few taste tests, their history is decidedly absent. The first known mention of them is in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bartender’s Guide. Angostura (the brand) makes a popular iteration—the only other type of bitters they’ve ever produced—which is thought to have the most straightforward “orange” profile. Typically these are made using Seville oranges, though with the variety of brands out there today, I imagine this is not always the case.

Orange bitters have a fairly versatile taste and pop up in cocktails such as the Rob Roy or the Pegu Club. We are a fan of using them in a Fifty-Fifty Martini, like the one below: 

FIFTY-FIFTY MARTINI

1 ½ ounces gin
1 ½ ounces dry vermouth
1 dash orange bitters
1 lemon twist

Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add gin, vermouth and orange bitters, and stir until the outside of the glass becomes frosty. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist.


Peychaud’s Bitters

Date of origin: 1838

Place of origin: New Orleans

Tastes: like Christmas, a little fruity and a lotta anise-y

The elixir was first concocted by Antoine Amédée Peychaud, who emigrated from Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to New Orleans in 1795. He opened a pharmacy in the French Quarter in 1838 that became a place for his friends to hang out after hours. He was a trained apothecary and would often mix up all sorts of things for friends, one of which was a drink that included brandy, absinthe and a dash of his secret potion.

The drink became popular locally, served at many of the coffee houses (apparently what they used to call drinking establishments) before Sazerac Coffee House made it official, naming the drink after itself. The Sazerac distribution company actually grew out of the original coffeehouse and bought the rights to Peychaud’s recipe in 1873.

By the time the Sazerac Bar opened on Royal Street, the specific kind of brandy they’d been using was no longer available due to a particularly devastating bug infestation (see: The Great French Wine Blight). Instead, they replaced it with rye whiskey and started bottling their own with the Sazerac name on it.

The recipe was again modified during the widespread ban of absinthe, which remained in effect for most of the 20th century. Wormwood bitters became a popular way to approximate the licorice flavor of absinthe, and are still part of some Sazerac recipes.

Here’s how we like to drink it:

SAZERAC

2 ½ oz rye
3 dashes absinthe
3 dashes each Peychaud’s & Angostura bitters
1 sugar cube
Lemon twist

Pour absinthe into a chilled coupe, swirl to coat and pour out. Muddle sugar cube in a mixing glass with bitters. Add rye and ice, stir to chill. Strain and garnish with lemon twist.