The truth about bitters and the cocktail is a long and sorted tale. It's believed that some version has existed as far back as ancient Egypt, where herbs and spices were preserved in wine to be consumed for medicinal purposes. Today, bitters are used in many of your favorite cocktails to complete their flavor profile. In the book, Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari, Mark Bitterman wrote, "Bitters are to cocktails as salt is to food. They improve and align flavors just like salt does; they help to accentuate flavor and they bring their own flavors." Ok, got it. Bitters are a sort of cocktail seasoning that enhances the flavor of the drink. But what exactly are bitters? Let's get into it.
What Are Bitters Made Of?
Bitters are a combination of various herbs, roots, bark and spices preserved in a rectified or neutral alcohol. Rectified alcohol is highly concentrated ethanol, repeatedly distilled for purification. This process is known as rectification. Just as seasonings don't taste good on their own, bitters taste bitter or sour, thus they're name.
What's The Use?
In more recent history, bitters were used for their healing powers just as the ancient Egyptians did. So-called physicians made the elixirs to cure common ailments such as poor digestion and poor circulation. The term bitters began appearing in the early 1700s, referring to patent medicines which were sipped straight, but these cure-alls were hard to swallow. Those in need of the “magic” potions spent nearly 100 years holding their noses and gulping down what they hoped would ease their disease.
The Birth Of The Cocktail
Finally, in the 1800’s, some extraordinary human being possessing incomparable intellect and inventiveness, had the bright idea to mix bitters with liquor, and just like that, the cocktail was born! The 1803 edition of The Farmer’s Cabinet, a periodical dedicated to agriculture, has the first known mention of a cocktail in reference to a drink, proclaiming it was “excellent for the head.” Three years later, in the May 13,1806 edition of the newspaper, Balance and The Columbian Repository, the editor presented the first known cocktail recipe, “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Bitters Brands We Know and Love
German doctor, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, produced Angostura Bitters in Venezuela in1824, to cure seasickness. Here in New Orleans, Haitian born Antoine Amidee Peychaud, a local pharmacist, started his own brand of bitters named after himself. He added liqueur, water and sugar to to it, creating the Sazerac, one of the first named cocktails in the Americas.
The Bitters Reboot
Now, some two centuries later, what’s old is new again, and there is a resurgence of bitters for drinking and cooking. For medicinal purposes, not so much. There are more than 500 kinds of bitters, but Angostura and Peychaud are still two of the most popular.
Below are the recipes for the traditional Sazerac as well as The Cook Shops take on it, The Creole Peach. Enjoy!
This is the connoisseur’s choice. One of the very first cocktails, it’s smooth, rich warmth is as captivating as it’s very cool history. This is a drink that when done correctly, always satisfies.
- 1 sugar cube
- 2 1/2 ounces whiskey — rye whisky
- 2 dashes Bitters — Peychaud’s bitters
- 1 dash Bitters — Angostura bitters
- 3 sprays of Herb Saint or absinthe
- lemon peel
2 antique crystal glasses
The last time I sat at a bar in New Orleans and ordered a Sazerac (last night), the bartender set up two beautiful antique, cut crystal glasses for mixing. That’s how it’s supposed to be done. Average mixing glasses just won’t do. Next add a cube of sugar, then muddle it. Now put in several small ice cubes and the rye whiskey, the Peychaud’s bitters, and the Angostura bitters.
In the second glass, spray a few times with Herb Saint or add a couple of drops of absinthe and swirl it around, coating the inside of the glass. Be sure to pour out any excess. Stir the ingredients of the first glass and poor it into the second. A twist of lemon peel is used to garnish. (Note: Most bars in New Orleans use Herb Saint.)
I highly recommend Sazerac Rye (18 years old).