Orange bitters were once the most popular type of bitters used in cocktails. Look at any pre-prohibition cocktail book and the recipes will be littered with references to this type of bitter, which has unfortunately fallen on harder times. These days, of the few people that know about bitters, most will only have heard of Angostura Aromatic bitters – orange bitters are unknown to most.
However, Angostura are hopefully about to help change that with their recently launched orange bitters, which they hope to have stocked everywhere the regular Angostura bitters are. They aren’t the only orange bitters on the block though. Fee Brother’s have been making their own orange bitters since the nineteenth century, and the past few years has seen other new arrivals from The Bitter Truth, a German company ran by two bitters fanatics, and a bottling by the one and only Mr Gary Regan.
So how do they all shape up? In the following comparisson I will be testing Fee Brothers West Indian Orange bitters, The Bitter Truth Orange bitters, Regan’s No. 6 Orange bitters, Angostura Orange bitters and Stirrings Blood Orange bitters. Unfortunately although I tried to get hold of some Hermes Orange bitters at the time of this comparison I was unable to. I have since been able to get hold of some, and have reviewed them separately along with Hermes Aromatic bitters.
With each bitters I sampled them both in a little water, and in a Martini. The Martini was a standard 3:1 Dry Martini with Plymouth gin and Noily Prat vermouth, with 2 dashes of the relevant bitters. They were all sampled side-by-side, along with a non-bittered Martini for reference (try explaining to your boyfriend why you have 6 Martinis lined up in front of you!), in an effort to ensure fairness and accuracy. First up, Fee Brothers…
Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters
These Fee Brothers bitters were the first orange bitters I ever brought. They have a sweet, slightly orangey scent, and in water they had an artificial, chemically taste to them. In the Martini they did little to help bring the flavours together, although they did provide a slightly sweet orangey hint. A definite improvement over the non-bittered Martini, but still not as smooth as I’d like it.
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
The Regans bitters have a smell that reminds me of freshly broken orange zest. They are much less sweet than the Fee Brothers and have a slight spice and an orangey hint. Added to a Martini they really seemed to bring the ingredients together, taking the bite out of the gin whilst still allowing its flavour through. More subtle than Angostura or Bitter Truth, but more complex than the Fee Brothers.
Angostura Orange Bitters
Angostura Orange bitters have a strong orangey smell to them, and in water that continued through with a strong, quite natural orangey taste, and a slight spice. Although the spice wasn’t overly strong they still had a definite complexity over the Regans. In a Martini it mixed together well, providing a (relatively) strong orange note, along with some spice.
The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters
Like the Angostura Orange bitters these have a good complex taste to them. The smell is quite a bitter, orange zesty flavour, and they are probably the spiciest of all the bitters I sampled. They provide a real complexity to the Martini, though if not used judiciously they could easily overpower the drink. Possibly the least orange tasting of all the bitters, though there is a citrus bite to them which ensures there is no mistaking it is an orange bitters.
The Bitter Truth bitters can be ordered directly from Germany.
Stirrings Blood Orange Bitters
The Blood Orange bitters from Stirrings are a bit different to the others, being non-alcoholic. This lack of alcohol presents a much softer tasting product which doesn’t really embody the characteristics all the other bitters share. When using just a few drops the Stirrings bitters just get lost, both in the water and the Martini. It is perhaps not fair to judge these with the other bitters as they are so different. I know from experience a bar-spoons worth of these in a Cosmopolitan work quite well. But in this test I’m afraid they failed miserably.
Upon embarking on this test I wondered whether I would be able to spot the difference a few drops of bitters makes to the many Martinis I tried, but even to my neophyte tongue the difference was surprisingly apparent. For me the Regans and Angostura bitters were the real winners, each providing a different, but interesting, taste to the Martini, without overwhelming it. The Bitter Truth bitters were also impressive though I feel they might work better in more aromatic drinks – I would love to see what they do in an Old Fashioned and will be trying that combination very soon.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Fee Brothers bitters, which didn’t really stand up very well to the Angostura, Regans and Bitter Truth bitters. That said, I know them to work well in sweeter drinks that need that balance bitters can provide. As for the Stirrings, they really aren’t the same product as the rest of these. Something to experiment with perhaps, but not one to use in standard recipes that call for orange bitters. Just be careful, as being non-alcoholic they’ll probably not last all that long unless you keep them in the fridge.
Overall none of these are bad bitters, but I suppose like many ingredient choices when making cocktails it all comes down to your own specific tastes. If you’ve never used orange bitters before, I’d recommend ordering a bottle of the Angostura Orange bitters, or alternatively Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6. Both of these are fine bitters and probably the most versatile of the ones I have tested here.
Now you know all about orange bitters, check out my review of aromatic bitters where I compare Fee Brothers Old Time Aromatic bitters, Fee Brothers Whisky Barrel-Aged bitters, Angostura Aromatic bitters, Peychaud’s bitters and The Bitter Truth Aromatic bitters.
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