If you look at any cocktail book printed in the early twentieth century, you are fairly certain to come across several recipes that require the use of bitters. Made using herbs and citrus fruits, bitters were popularly used in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as medicinal preparations to help cure various ailments.
When tasted alone bitters are not particularly pleasant, which is probably why they also began to be added to drinks. This eventually developed in to the “cock-tail”, described in the May 13, 1806 edition of “Balance and Columbian Repository” as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters“. The cocktail was born.
Bitters are normally used in cocktails rather sparingly. While you might typically measure cocktail ingredients in centilitres or fluid-ounces, bitters bottles usually have a cap fitted with a very small hole which means when turned upside-down, one shake of the bottle will release what is generally termed a dash. This dash, just a few millilitres in size, is often all that is needed, although some recipes call for several dashes.
It’s tempting to think that because such small amounts are used, bitters aren’t worth the hassle of locating and can just be skipped over. However, despite the small amount used they have a very definite effect on the flavour profile of a drink, helping to bring the ingredients together. Don’t think that because of the name it will immediately make the drink bitter. While it may taste bitter on its own, in a cocktail it works more like adding a herb to a sauce.
If you still don’t believe that a few drops can make such a big difference in a drink, knock up two cocktails that use bitters, like an Old Fashioned (with aromatic bitters), or a Martini (with orange bitters), but leave the bitters out of one of them. The cocktail sans-bitters will probably taste perfectly okay, but the one with them will have an added complexity that really elevates the drink.
Unfortunately, while brands were once in their dozens, if not hundreds, at the height of bitters popularity, a combination of increased consumer awareness that the medicinal properties were entirely unproven, along with prohibition, shrunk the bitters market to all but a few hardy companies like Angostura and Fee Brothers. Even with those bitters that are still available it’s rare to find them in all but a select few off-licenses and shops. The one exception is Angostura aromatic bitters, which have managed to maintain excellent distribution in many countries. These are an excellent product and therefore a good place to start with bitters.
You’ll also want to pick up some orange bitters, which work wonderfully in many drinks and were actually more popular than Angostura bitters prior to prohibition. Remember that though they might be hard to track down, with just a few dashes per cocktail a bottle of bitters is going to last you quite some time. And everyone one of those drinks is going to taste much better thanks to the addition of bitters.
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