A few tiny drops go a long way to enhance cocktails
Drinking has become such a bitter experience. Walk into any well-attended cocktail lounge in almost any city in the country, and it’s almost impossible not to leave with a bitter taste.
Even here, along the wave-washed Texas coast, where sun and sand epitomize the sweet side of life, one can see it growing.
Don’t despair. The invasive bitterness in cocktail-speak is actually a whole retro-revolution using centuries-old concoctions of fruits, herbs, spices, flowers and who knows what else to make what is old, new again. They’re called bitters.
While even the ancient Egyptians had a few bitters around to settle the stomach after a hard day building pyramids and Europeans touted the concoction’s power in the Middle Ages, our own Gulf Coast and this part of the world has a huge stake in modern-day bitterdom.
Bitters — they come commercially bottled with names like Angostura, Bittermens, Fee Brothers and Peychaud’s, or made in-house by mixologists — are not drinks in themselves anymore, but carefully splashed-in additives. Their common name well describes what they taste like.
They are the bit players that with just a few drops bring out the various flavors of an average cocktail. Loved old classics like the Manhattan, the whiskey sour, the old fashioned, the zombie or even something as simple as Scotch and soda take on a new vibrancy with just a few drops — creating not so much a change in flavor but a volume-up of the flavors already there. One publication declared them the salt and pepper on the cocktail table.
“They are really versatile and can be used in so many different drinks,” says Nicholas Stephenson, bar manager at Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood, 7809 Broadway in Galveston.
Stephenson stocks a variety of bitters including grapefruit, apple and Creole.
“Just a couple of drops can bring a whole new flavor to the cocktail,” he said.
Now, for many years people knew bitters as that Angostura bottle in the bar that has been there since Ronald Reagan went into movies. It was a must for every bar, but no one seemed to have a clue why or what to do with it. Having this aging, crusty, paper-wrapped bottle to shove around the shelf had panache, albeit mysterious panache.
Several bars in the area such as Opus, 1002 Aspen Road in Kemah, and Bar None at Diamond Beach, 10327 Seawall Blvd. in Galveston, still serve up some of the old classic cocktails and still finish it off with those important drops of bitters before serving.
But things have started changing in the last five or so years when, as the art of mixology reached new heights, the well-stocked bar may now have six to 10 different bottles of bitters and a host of new drinks to put them in.
Like the ancient lamp with a genie inside, the amazing powers of this little concoction have caught the attention of bartenders too young to remember when bitters were bountiful — much less when Ronald Reagan went into movies. House-made bitters are becoming quite the thing. Several restaurants and bars in Houston now flaunt their bitter inventiveness.
One thing has led to another and suddenly our great country is awash in commercial bitters with more than half a dozen startup companies, both domestic and international like The Bitter Truth, Scrappy’s and Boudreau coming on the scene.
“It’s been slow coming to this area, but like most trends, the interest in bitters started on the East and West coasts and then moves toward the middle,” Stephenson said. “I know a lot of places in New York and all are really into making their own. I’ve been thinking about that myself. There’s just so much that can be done with them.”
So what are these wonder drops? Bitters are simply extracts of combined ingredients mixed in high-proof alcohol. That alcohol, by the way, limits sales to places where alcohol can be sold, and at one time, limited distribution dramatically. The original extracts came mostly from exotic spices and herbs and were thought to have mystical healing powers. They found a ready source of ingredients in the colonies in southern North America, the Caribbean, Mexico and South America.
Called digestive bitters and known for the punch they packed, the first bitters were sold as medicinal aids, thus making Old England jolly. Similar concoctions proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic all the way through the 20th century. They were claimed to cure everything from arthritis, common colds, diphtheria and fever to bug bites, tuberculosis, menstrual pain and the mange. Hangovers seemed to be unaffected. As digestive aids, they still exist today and are usually drunk straight, being medicinal and all. As far back as the Middle Ages, however, people learned a spoon full of booze helped the medicine go down.
Angostura Bitters, which began as a cure for seasickness in Venezuela in 1824 before later moving to Trinidad and Tobago, is probably the most familiar cocktail bitter brand today, but not because it’s one of the oldest. It best adapted to U.S. laws regarding sales of alcohol and, with its distinctive brown paper wrapping, had the largest distribution. Today, some bitters are made with little or no alcohol content, thus found in grocery stores and such, but certainly others stick by the recipe that made them famous and can be purchased only in retail liquor outlets.
Closer to our own Texas coast, Peychaud’s Bitters started up in an New Orleans apothecary shop in 1830 as a cure to various ailments. It soon became an essential additive to classic New Orleans drinks such as the Sazerac and the Vieux Carre. Interestingly, the recipe changed in the early 1900s when federal law required the absinthe come out, and when its owners, the Sazerac Company, purchased distilleries in Kentucky about 15 years ago, Peychaud’s production moved there — and the original Sazerac recipe was changed to call for Kentucky bourbon. New Orleans was without homegrown bitterness until 2009 when the Bittermens company moved from New York.
Aromatic bitters evolved from early digestive bitters. These are those most often paired with whiskeys, brandy and other aged spirits, and are usually heavy with spices like cinnamon, anise and cloves, as well as vanilla and some floral additives. More recently, they have been finding their way into some tropical drinks and yes, even Tequila.
Citrus bitters boomed during the late 19th century, almost always using different varieties of oranges, especially Seville. The popularity died out, but a century later these are the hit of every party. Today, the orange now shares the stage with grapefruit and countless other citrus flavors. This has opened the door for their use in more gin- and vodka-based drinks.
In this new bitter world, the harvest has no limit. From Mexican style cacao and hot peppers to Midwest blueberries, if an extract can be made, nothing cannot be made bitter — and better.
At Number 13 last summer, Stephenson created a Spiced Apple Pie cocktail. To perk up the flavors, he finished the drink off with apple bitters.
“It was just a few drops, because bitters are so concentrated, but it made the drink,” he said.
Still, for all their trendiness, popularity and newfound fame, bitters do hold on to their roots.
Asked about requests for drinks using them, a bartender out at Woody’s, 11149 San Luis Pass Road in Galveston’s West End, rapidly responded: “Bitters and club soda. It’s good for heartburn.”
Or as another old toast goes, “Here’s to what ails you.”
Spiced Apple Pie
1⁄2 ounce Firefly Apple Pie Moonshine
1⁄2 ounce Jack Daniel’s Fire
1⁄2 ounce Frangelico
2 dashes Bar Keep “Apple” Bitters
2 ounces apple juice
Pour all the ingredients over ice. Garnish with orange twist.
– Recipe courtesy of Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood, 7809 Broadway, Galveston