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Essential Ingredient
Published:  26 June, 2018

Bitters add depth, flavour and spice to cocktails, says Phil Duff, so it’s no wonder so many new versions have started to appear on back bars

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HOW MANY DO WE have? We have all three!” I was having a quiet drink in a bar recently and an eager young off-duty mixologist was interrogating Gavin, the older gentleman behind the bar, as to how many different bottles of cocktail bitters the bar stocked.

Gavin’s pointed response refers to the sacred trinity of cocktail bitters: Angostura aromatic bitters, Peychaud’s bitters, and orange bitters. Many will say you need no more in a bar, though, in a lot of countries, it’s still difficult to find all three. But in most places,

mixologists nowadays stock their bars with dozens of brands, with flavours ranging from lavender-chipotle to gentian, chocolate-mole and hellfire (which is, it seems, a flavour).

Having a wide array of exotic cocktail bitters has become one of the perceived hallmarks of a good bar, like a disdain for vodka or a liking for sleeve gaiters. Barware suppliers such as Cocktail Kingdom sell dainty Japanese-style decanters you can pour your bitters into.

A typical 4oz bottle of non-potable cocktail bitters retails for around $10, which would equate to $63 if it was in a 75cl bottle. Bitters are relatively inexpensive to make. Given that a well-made amaro designed to be drunk straight typically retails for $30 or less (and a fine 12-year-old single malt for $50), there are clearly healthy margins in those little bottles.

MEDICINAL USES

Back in the day, bitters were medicines containing botanicals designed to cure indigestion and a host of other ailments, stabilised in alcohol. In fact Angostura, the world’s biggest bitters brand, was created as a tropical medicine for army troops in 1824 by Dr Johann Siegert.

Siegert wasn’t the first, though, not by a long chalk. There were already mega-bitters brands such as Stoughton’s and Boonekamp that date back to 1700s Europe. However they began, it’s now accepted that bitters contain bittering flavours (quassia, cinchona and wormwood are popular, and hops have made a comeback),

flavouring agents (anything from citrus to celery to, ahem, hellfire) and alcohol, to stabilise and preserve the botanicals, plus perhaps some sugar and colouring.

No one is quite sure when bitters became more of a recreational cocktail ingredient than an essential medicine, but one clue is that the oldest comprehensive definition of the word

‘cocktail’, dating from 1806 in New York, is as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”.

The fortunes of bitters are thus largely linked to the popularity of cocktails, and bitters were vital in the first Golden Age of cocktails, which ran in the US from the mid-1800s almost until Prohibition came into force in 1920.

American bartenders promptly emigrated to places such as Europe and Cuba so they could continue to ply their trade, spreading the gospel of the cocktail far and wide – and always with a bottle or two of bitters to hand.