Sweet on Bitters: The History and Use of Bitters

Spirits By Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi

There is no such thing as an Old Fashioned cocktail without bitters. With the recent revival in classic cocktails around the world - not all the credit should go to Don Draper, the Old Fashioned-obsessed ad man from Mad Men - it is rare to find a recipe that doesn't need bitters. Many of the old famous drinks, the Champagne Cocktail, the Manhattan, and the Sid Vicious find their balance, or dry edge from them.

The one that every bartender is aware of is Angostura bitters, which don't get their name from the addition of the angostura tree bark. The brand gets its name from the Venezuelan town where the recipe was first invented.

A German doctor, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, came up with the recipe in Angostura as a medicinal tonic for a variety of illnesses in 1824. It was a secret blend of herbs, plants and spices. The taste was appreciated by people and they started drinking it as much for happiness as for health. While Angostura bitters' production continues in Trinidad, the recipe is still secret.

But Angostura, while the most popular aromatic bitters, are certainly not the first ones to be produced.

Bitters  were commercially produced in the Czech Republic under the brand Becherovka in 1807 . They were flavored with anise, cinnamon and at least 32 other herbs. Here as well, they were created with the intention to help people suffering from indigestion, arthritis and many other ailments. As with Angostura, today only two people know the recipe and continue to mix spices and herbs at the manufacturing plant.

In Italy, Campari, Amaro and Fernet took shape quite similarly. Today every European country has many versions of bitters, while manufacturers in the US, such as Fee Brothers are experimenting with flavors such as chocolate mole, grapefruit, lime, mint, cherry fruit, and sherry-aged bitters to add an additional spark of aroma to your drink.

Even though the Angostura brand does not use the angostura tree bark, it contains gentian, a common bitter herb used to make bitters characteristically bitter. Other things that may be used a base ingredients in a bitter are cascarilla, cassia and quinine, along with a mix of different spice and vegetable extracts.

Gentian is known for its properties in curing nausea and seasickness, as well stimulating the appetite. Which explains why Surgeon General in Simon Bolivar's army, Dr Siegart first marketed his bottles of tonic to sailors.

How you treat the bitters in your cocktail are important. The sailors would splash a few drops into the glass to "pink" it and then add a large measure of gin to the same glass, resulting in The Pink Gin. In the Old Fashioned, after a sugar cube is placed at the bottom of the glass and soaked with bitters before  rye, orange zest, ice and a splash of soda is added to the glass. In many countries in Europe, bitters over ice serves as an effective digestif after a meal. What is certain is that any of these drinks made without bitters tastes vastly different. My favorite way to have them everyday is by splashing them into a sparkling lemonade. It brings out the transformative power of bitters at their most simple.