The Bitters Truth
Connoisseurs in pursuit of authentic, pre-Prohibition cocktail culture are rediscovering bitters and, as Mark Ellwood finds, making the old new again.
Until about a year ago there wasn't a person alive who knew what Boker's bitters truly tasted like. But then a man turned up at the London Bar Show with a finger of the old stuff to share. Made using cassia, cardamom, and bitter orange peel, Boker's was once swirled with brandy, orgeat syrup, and lemon peel in a cocktail known as the Japanese. The company disappeared a century ago in the wake of legal changes that outlawed many bitters, and it's impossible to find anything but empty bottles today. "It was a tiny amount of original Boker's—no one knew it existed," says Charlotte Voisey, a champion British bartender who has created cocktail lists for The Dorchester in London and New York's Gramercy Park Hotel. In the end she declined to join the tasting line. "I didn't know who he was," she says, "and I didn't see it as my place to ask for some. It was that sacred."
Voisey's reverence isn't unusual, as bitters have become the latest obsession of cocktail connoisseurs and cutting-edge bartenders. Prized for their complex flavors, bitters are mixtures of herbs, roots, spices, and fruits infused in alcohol. In milder forms they are sometimes drunk on their own or with soda, but more typically they are added to other liquors to make sophisticated cocktails. "Think of them as a magic wand behind the bar," Voisey says. "Time and again, when you wonder what's missing in a drink, you add one drop of bitters, and wow! It tastes fabulous."
The frenzy over antique bitters follows similar trends in old barware and vintage recipe books. Thanks in part to the high alcohol content, bitters age exceptionally well. The contents of an untouched bottle can taste rich and complex even after a century. These days the cognoscenti are tracking, sampling, and, in some cases, re-creating discontinued obscurities like Boker's—all in an effort to recapture the golden, pre-Prohibition era of cocktails. And vintage bottles, often made of beautiful colored glass with ornate labels, have become highly collectible.
Originally concocted as tinctures—with dubious medicinal benefits—bitters became a staple of mixed drinks in the early 19th century. Indeed, it was the inclusion of bitters that distinguished a proper cocktail from, say, a punch or a cobbler. But the 1906 U.S. Food and Drugs Act, which regulated ingredients and required proof of health benefits, effectively outlawed many bitters, and Prohibition finished off most of the rest. By the time Americans were drinking liquor freely again, after World War II, they were downing bland whiskey or vodka highballs, and bitters remained largely forgotten in this country.
As recently as five years ago, most American bar stocks were limited to Ango-stura, the well-known Trinidad and Tobago bitters (which were created in 1824 by the German-born doctor J.G.B. Siegert as a palliative for stomach ailments suffered by soldiers in Simón Bolívar's army). But things began to change with the growing interest in retro cocktail culture, as bartenders started snapping up vintage books on eBay, looking for forgotten recipes. They discovered numerous unfamiliar bitters with names like Abbott's, Boker's, Caroni, Hostetter's, Schroeder's, Stoughton, and Khoosh.
Most of these brands were aromatic bitters. Related to the amari that Italians drink as aperitifs, such as Campari or Averna, aromatic bitters are more intensely concentrated and made using ingredient-dense (often closely guarded) recipes. "They should have a flavor complexity like Worcestershire sauce—something you wouldn't drink on its own," explains Robert Hess, cofounder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, which is setting up a permanent home in New Orleans.
The earliest of the famous bitters was Stoughton. Originally patented in England in 1712, it gained popularity in the American colonies in the decades that followed. Once the recipe was published, however, fakes flooded the market and eventually doomed the brand. Then came Angostura, Hostetter's, Boker's, and Peychaud's. The last is notable because it was dashed into the popular 19th-century cocktail the Sazerac. Peychaud's is still in production (though the ingredients have changed) as is Angostura, of course, but most of the old bitters have long since disappeared.
Brian Van Flandern, who helms the storied Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle in New York, hunts vintage bitters for both the bottles and the booze. "I was recently bidding on a bottle of Angostura bitters from 1824 on eBay," he says. "I expect it to be fifty percent full and a little thick and sludgy due to evaporation." It's an expensive hobby. Before bitters collecting took off, an entire case of Abbott's—among the easier antique brands to find—cost $900 in mint condition. Today a single bottle, with just an ounce or so left inside, could fetch $400 or more.
Ted Haigh was among the first to start pursuing obscure bottles. He now has a collection that's described by others with a measure of awe and a dash of envy. Haigh owns a Boker's bottle, hard to find because the antique glassware is especially valued by collectors and bitters enthusiasts because of its "lady leg" shape, a cylinder topped off with a long neck. He also snapped up the only full bottle of Khoosh (from England) so far unearthed. The Café Royal Cocktail Book, a classic published in the thirties, includes several Khoosh recipes. "I knew it had never come to the United States. British bartenders used it during Prohibition in lieu of things that were no longer available," Haigh says. Most bitters originated in America, but when Prohibition hobbled the liquor business, cocktail-swilling Brits had to come up with alternatives.
Haigh's proudest purchase, though, is a bottle of French-made Secrestat bitters in its signature cylindrical, embossed green-glass bottle. "I found an Argentine auction site and could see they had a bottle for sale, but I don't speak Spanish so I got a friend to help me," he says, chuckling. "It cost about $35 including shipping for a full bottle, when a labeled empty one I'd found before cost me more than $100."
Haigh's holy grail would be a full bottle of Stoughton. Brian Van Flandern is looking for the same. "The original 1712 bottle of that unmolested and intact? It would be like finding pre-phylloxera Cognac," Van Flandern raves. The liquor world's answer to a live dodo, however, would be a bottle of Caroni or celery bitters. Mentioned in old recipes, they are entirely unknown today.
The same was true of Boker's, at least until that man showed up with a bottle at the London Bar Show. As it turned out, one of those present for the tasting, a German bartender and entrepreneur named Stephan Berg, chanced upon his own bottle of Boker's shortly thereafter (it was for sale online, misidentified). Berg was then launching the Bitter Truth, a company that makes four varieties of bitters, and he is now on a quest to re-create the recipe for Boker's, described by most as heady and full of sassafras.
On a smaller scale, numerous bartenders are now experimenting with their own bitters recipes, while amateur sleuth–cum–mixologists are producing small-batch replicas of extinct brands and supplying them to authenticity-obsessed bars. New Yorker John Deragon, whose day job is chief technology officer at a media company, has been tweaking an Abbott's recipe (see "Reinventing the Abbott's") cooked up by a chemist friend, who used gas chromatography to analyze an old sample. Abbott's is prized as the key ingredient of the Martinez, the 19th- century precursor to Bond's favorite tipple.
"It's barrel-aged to allow the clove oil to break down and mellow," says Deragon. "The issue is exactly how long to age it." He's relying on bartenders to help him fine-tune the formula, providing batches to New York cocktail meccas such as Death & Co. and Gramercy Tavern restaurant. "I only recently tasted Abbott's for the first time," Deragon admits. "Still, everyone agrees my recipe is very good."
Reinventing the Abbott's
This recipe produces a close replica of the old abbott's bitters. use a kitchen scale to measure whole ingredients.
1/2 lb whole cloves
4 oz tonka beans, cracked
17 oz chopped ginger 11/2 oz whole cardamom
12 bay leaves
1 oz benzoin
22 tbsp ground nutmeg
2/3 oz cassia sticks
1/4 oz allspice berries
3 tsp dried gentian root
11/5 oz dried spearmint
1/10 oz whole star anise
1/10 oz dried lavender
Crush cardamom, allspice, and star anise. Add all ingredients to 41/2 cups of rye, like Rittenhouse. Seal in a Mason jar for ten days, shaking daily. Then pour through a cheesecloth to remove large solids and strain three times using a paper coffee filter, changing when clogged. Add 11/4 cups of water and reseal. Filter again after two days. Age the infusion for six months in a Mason jar with charred oak chips.
1 available at mountainroseherbs.com
2 available at kalustyans.com
Pick of the Bitters
With help from bitters guru Ted Haigh, we've put together a list of the finest brands. For further information, check out Haigh's Web site, cocktaildb.com, and Robert Hess's drinkboy.com. A prime source for bitters is LeNell's in Brooklyn (416 Van Brunt St.; 877-667-6627; lenells.com).
Angostura It's the most prevalent bitters on the market and rightly so, given the complex flavor of this rum-based brand. "It's the finest aromatic bitters ever produced," Haigh says. Dash it into a piña colada.
Amer Picon Used in the classic Brooklyn cocktail along with dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and rye whiskey, this European bitters falls somewhere between the lighter aperitif and dense aromatic categories.
The Bitter Truth Owner Stephan Berg makes four varieties, including a classic blend Haigh calls "Dr. Berg's sassafras bitters," in a nod to its dominant note. Berg is now working on a replica of the old New York brand Boker's.
Elixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse A Chartreuse offshoot from France, this concentrated tincture has been made by the same monastery since the early 18th century.
Fee Brothers This family-run company in upstate New York dates back to the heyday of bitters. It makes the only peach bitters sold in this country, and its new limited-edition whiskey barrel–aged blend has bartenders raving.
Peychaud's The dominant flavor here is anise. Add a splash to a glass of pastis, simple syrup, and a slug of rye whiskey and you've got the original Sazerac cocktail.
Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6 Dreamed up by drinks guru Gary Regan on his sixth try, this one is spice-heavy. Put a dash in a Fifty-Fifty: equal parts gin and vermouth.
Suntory Hermes Made by the Japanese brewing giant, this is the ideal orange bitters, balancing clear, clean acid notes and spicy citrus.
Suze French-made, the gentian-and-honey-flavored blend is a digestive bitters that's similar to Campari. Add it to equal parts Calvados and French vermouth.
A. van Wees This Dutch distillery produces a range of bitters, including an aromatic that has a kick of angostura bark and cinnamon.
Real joints: the short list
Death & Co.
Stashed behind heavy wood doors on Manhattan's Lower East Side, this dimly lit bar is one of the best places to sample bitters. Order John Deragon's re-creation of Abbott's in an old-fashioned Martinez. 433 E. Sixth St.; 212-388-0882; deathandcompany.com
Ask one of the dapper black tie–clad bartenders in this old-school joint to whip up a Billionaire: bourbon, homemade grenadine, lemon juice, and a splash of absinthe bitters. 510 Hudson St., New York; 212-242-3021; employeesonlynyc.com
Jon Gasparini, co-owner of this speakeasy-style lounge, used to smuggle bitters over from Europe, but as business boomed he resorted to making his own. His favorite drink on Rye's retro cocktail list is the Santiago Sun, a kumquat, rum, and Falernum concoction spiked with clementine orange bitters. 688 Geary St., San Francisco; 415-474-4448
Zig Zag Café
It may look like a neighborhood dive, but the Zig Zag is where Seattle's bartenders come to compare cocktail know-how. Lean on the concrete bar or pull up a rickety chair and order a drink with a dash or two of the spicy, pepper-infused housemade Zig Zag bitters. 1501 Western Ave.; 206-625-1146; zigzagcafe.net
In the mahogany and red velvet bar at this London hotel, the bitters are custom-crafted by pastry chef Robert Petrie, formerly of Nobu London and Hakkasan. His lavender, ginger, vanilla, cardamom, and grapefruit varieties are served from vintage-style bottles. Park Ln.; 44-207/ 629-8888; thedorchester.com