Now that craft cocktails have gained their place in the world of drinking—and are no longer relegated to girls' night out or bastardized versions of the classics—it's fitting that home bartenders should focus on bitters. It was once enough when asked about bitters to point to a crusty bottle of Angostura on the back bar and be done with it, but now the game has changed.
The first definition of the cocktail in print appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, which lists four essential ingredients: liquor, sugar, water, and bitters. However, bitters predate the cocktail. Bitters were sold as curative formulas and, frankly, were nothing short of snake oil. Early advertisements for the now defunct Pond's Bitters claimed that the bitters cured headaches, dyspepsia, biliousness, diarrhea, and constipation. (Presumably the bitters know when to put on the gas and when to put on the brakes for the latter two ailments—no pun intended.) Yet enterprising bartenders decided that these elixirs work well in drinks.
As you can well imagine, the essential characteristic of a bitter is that it contains a bittering agent. These agents are generally macerated in alcohol—a solvent—and sometimes in water and glycerin with stabilizers. Common bittering agents, and ones that I use in my own recipe, include gentian root, quassia bark (quassia amara contains quassin, allegedly the most bitter substance on the planet), quinine, wormwood, and dandelion.
As a brief aside, bitters are an "aversive" flavor. When we consume something bitter it sends warning signals to our brain that what we're eating or drinking could potentially be toxic, or fun. Many substances that have pleasurable affects are also bitter (beer and coffee, for example). Combined with "apertive" flavors such as salty and sweet, it often causes a mixed response. This is an acquired taste—and let's face it, cocktails are an acquired taste. However, the adventurous drinker will find great rewards once he or she has learned to love cocktails.
In the past, you could find hundreds of formulas for bitters, from Brown's Iron Bitters (no relation to me) to Peychaud's Bitters, along with various flavors including orange, Angostura, and celery. Each one had a different application in cocktails, and by switching from one to another you could transform a drink. Apart from bittering agents, many aromatic compounds are added to bitters as well. And, much like with gin or vermouth, the list of possible botanicals, peels and vegetables is enormous. To name a few: orange peels, cassia, caraway, coriander, and anise.
Bitters ran up against the law when in 1906 Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. Products required some truth in labeling and the bevy of absurd claims and potentially poisonous ingredients were destined to fall away. (Other spirits didn't fare much better.) This was the beginning of the end for bitters, no longer considered medicine, and subsequent taxation was nearly the final straw.
Once Prohibition passed in 1919, the number of available bitters was reduced greatly, and the product never recovered from those blows. That is, until now. Next week I will discuss some of the new lines of bitters and how bartenders are making their own.