Bitters are the life blood of cocktails. They are the essence that elevates the flavor of your drink, much like seasoning elevates the flavors of your food. They can take a good cocktail and make it a great cocktail. In fact, the first written definition of the word “cocktail” defined it as consisting of spirit, water, sugar, and bitters — so by definition, you can’t even have a proper cocktail without bitters. But did you know that bitters weren’t even originally made for cocktails?
What's In a Name?
Bitters, or Cocktail Bitters, are a category, not necessarily a flavor profile. "Bitter" is one of the five senses the human tongue can discern — and it's probably the least enjoyable, as a bitter taste often triggers the brain to believe you are ingesting something toxic. Cocktail bitters are not meant to be consumed in large quantities; for the most part, the alcohol content is too high and the flavor is too intense for drinking. Typically, a couple drops (or dashes) are enough to elevate the flavor of a cocktail, but there are certain adventurous recipes that call for a full a ounce and a half shot.
Drink Your Medicine
The history of bitters goes back hundreds — maybe even thousands — of years. Bitters are considered an aromatic flavoring agent consisting of herbs, barks, roots, seeds, peels, berries, and fruits infused into a solution of high proof alcohol or glycerin.
Much like Gin and Vermouth, these infusions were initially created for medicinal benefits. Recipes going back to ancient civilizations call for adding specific herbs to fermented beverages to cure certain ailments. As the art of distilling fermented beverages into higher proof spirits evolved, the practice continued, eventually leading to the creation of Gin and other herbal liqueurs like Sambuca, Benedictine, and Chartreuse.
It also lead to infused spirits that focused more on bitter herbs. Today, these are Bitter Liqueurs, such as Amaros (which is Italian for bitter) and spirits like Campari and Aperol. These are referred to as “Potable” bitters, meaning they are meant to be consumed in larger portion for intoxicating purposes.
Bitters were used in England for medicine as far back as the 1700s. Eventually they would make their way to the US for the same purpose. In the early 1800s, before the existence of the FDA the Pure Food and Drug Act, companies could make all kinds of outrageous claims for their products, whether or not they could be substantiated. Some brands of bitters actually targeted specific ailments or body parts that they claimed to treat. Brands like Hostetters Stomach Bitters, Atwoods Jaundice Bitters, and Porters Stomach Bitters were among the over 100 brands that existed in America prior to prohibition. And because they were considered non potable and medicinal, they were not subject to the alcohol tax. This also allowed them to be sold during Prohibition. Interestingly, it was not uncommon for even “Drys” to drink a medicinal shot of bitters every day.
It is not really known when we started adding bitters to cocktails, but the idea was inevitable. Mixing daily medicine into your drink is a practice the British Navy used quite effectively. It's how we ended up with the Gin Gimlet (lime juice) and more importantly the Gin and Tonic (quinine).
What we do know is that the first written mention of using bitters in drinks was when the Godfather of bartending, Jerry Thomas, included them in multiple recipes in his book The Bartender's Guide. The book is also considered to be the first bartending book, and is consider a must-have for home and professional bartenders alike. The book calls for Bogart's Bitters — though no such brand existed at the time.
Most historians believe he was talking about Boker's Bitters, and that there was a typo or translational error. Boker's was produced up until the 1920s, but like many other brands, Prohibition did them in. A few original bottles have been recovered, and a couple modern brands have analyzed and attempted to recreate the formula. Interestingly enough, if you see an original Boker's label, it actually says "stomach bitters" on it.
A Bitter Rivalry
By the mid 1900s, there weren’t too many brands of Bitters left in the US, and two of the remaining few would end up in a court battle that would solidify one brand's future and almost end the other's. The problem? Both the Siegert and the Abbott brands of bitters used the name Angostura on their respective labels. Brand confusion was the obvious argument in court. The problem was, not only is Angostura the name of the bark that is one of the key ingredients in the bitters, but it was also the name of the town where the bark came from (now know as Ciudad Bolivar). Even more interesting is that Siegert didn’t actually use Angostura bark in their bitters.
The lawsuits started in the beginning of the 1900s in the Abbott home state of Maryland — to no benefit of the Siegerts. Eventually another suit would be filed in New York, where the Siegert corporate offices were. These lawsuits would go back and forth for years, until the Siegert brand finally won out and the Abbotts were forced to change their labeling, which would doom the brand shortly thereafter. In recent years, much like what has been done with Boker's (Bogart's) Bitters, companies have attempted to recreate and bottle a replica version of Abbott's Bitters. "Siegert's Angostura Bitters" was shortened to "Angostura Bitters," becoming not only the number one brand, but in the 1990s, along with Peychaud's, one of the last remaining brands of Bitters.
Angostura Through the Ages
Angostura bitters have a long, rich history that intertwines with global history, Hollywood, and even Pablo Escobar. They were created by Dr. Yohann Siegert in the early 1800s as Dr. Siegert's Aromatic Bitters.
Dr. Siegert was a German physician who was reportedly witnessed on the battlefields during the Battles of Waterloo, where Napolean was defeated ending the Napoleanic Wars. From there, he would become Simon Bolivar’s Surgeon General during his famous liberation of Central and South America from Spain.
Siegert created the Tonic (Bitters) for Bolivar's troops. Bolivar is a treasured hero in Central and South America, and the town of Angostura in Venezuela would eventually be renamed after him as "Ciudad Bolivar." When Pablo Escobar was rising to power, the Guerilla group M-19 presented him with a sword of Bolivar's that they had liberated (stole) from a museum after he backed their mission. Escobar presented the sword to his son as a gift before taking it back and returning it to M-19 so that it could be put back in its rightful place. The sword's current whereabouts are unknown.
At some point, Siegert formed a partnership with a man named G.D. Wupperman that would lead to globalizing the brand. Wupperman was especially instrumental in getting Angostura imported into the US. He had 11 children and became a well-respected actor and poet, but died very young. His younger brother, acting under the name Ralph Morgan, would establish the Screen Actors Guild, which today is still the union that represents Hollywood actors. The youngest brother, acting as Frank Morgan, would become famous for playing the part of the wizard in The Wizard of Oz.
Peychaud's Rich History
Peychaud's Bitters also have a long history — and they can also be tied to Napolean! In the late 1700s, Antoine Peychaud was an apothecary on the island of Sainte-Domingue (modern day Haiti). The island was French-owned and under the rule of Napolean.
When the slaves on the island revolted and claimed their independence, many of the French inhabitants were forced to flee and relocate to New Orleans. New Orleans was also owned by the French up until the whole territory was sold to the US in The Louisiana Purchase.
Antoine continued his profession, setting up a drug store at 437 Royal St. He was known to host Masonic parties there, as he was a high ranking member of the local lodge. Much like any apothecary at the time, he would create and patent his own brand of bitters. At his parties he would use the bitters in a toddy mixed with water, sugar, and French Brandy. He used the parties as a way to promote his product. It did well, but to sell more he needed to get more coffee houses to use it in their pours.
In the 1840s, an importer named Sewell Taylor opened the Merchant Exchange Coffeehouse on Royal St., just down the road from the Peychaud pharmacy. After turning over operations of the coffeehouse, Taylor opened a liquor store where he sold the exclusive brands that he imported. One of those brands was a French Brandy called Sazerac-de-Forge-et fils. He also hired a clerk named Thomas Handy to work for him.
While many coffeehouses served Brandy cocktails, the Merchant Exchange exclusively used Sazerac Brandy and Peychaud's Bitters in theirs. It became such a popular drink that the coffeehouse was eventually renamed the Sazerac Coffeehouse. Thomas Handy eventually left the liquor store and took over operations at the coffeehouse. The Sazerac Cocktail became so popular that Peychaud closed his drug store and became business partners with Handy.
By 1871, the Thomas Handy company was the sole importer of Sazerac and the producer of Peychaud's. After the insect Phylloxera wiped out most of the vineyards in France, the French Brandy Sazerac was no longer available.
Before Handy and Peychaud passed away, the rights to their business were sold to CJ O’Reilly, who would rename the company The Sazerac Company. He would also launch an American whiskey brand with the same name. The Sazerac Company went on to purchase Buffalo Trace, where Peychaud's (and many other brands) is currently made, becoming one of the largest liquor companies in the world. Today, the Sazerac Cocktail is recognized by the state of Louisiana as the official cocktail of New Orleans.
Fee Brothers: The Third Bitters Dynasty
Fee Brothers, the third corner of the Bitter triangle, also has a long history. Fee Brothers traces its roots back to the 1850s in Rochester, New York, when John Fee opened up a grocery/liquor store. They sold their own wine, as well as imported wines from California. They also imported many brands of liquor.
Eventually the store would be converted in to a saloon. When Prohibition began, they stayed afloat by selling altar wine and wine making kits to those who could legally make wine at home. In addition, they produced and sold flavorings and syrups.
It wasn’t until after Prohibition in the 1950s that Fee Brothers would produce an Orange Bitters for the market. While most bitters were alcohol tincture-based and considered medicinal, Fee Brothers took a different approach. Their bitters were glycerin-based and less bitter, crafted to be more of a flavoring element.
By the late 70s, they were among the three brands of bitters left on the market, and the only one produced in America. They were they only Orange Bitters until the 1990s, when Gary Regan put out his No. 6 Orange Bitters, a more traditional “bitter” orange bitter. Today, Fee Brothers makes almost 20 different flavors of bitters, including cherry, chocolate, black walnut, and a whiskey barrel aged aromatic bitter.
The Bitters Renaissance
Thankfully for bartenders and home cocktail enthusiasts alike, there is a bitters renaissance occurring. Brands like The Bitter Truth (which revived the original Boker's formula), El Guapo, Cocktail Kingdom, Scrappy’s, and so many more are producing all kinds of unique and interesting flavors of bitters.
There are also some fantastic books out there like Mark Bitterman’s (real name) Field Guide to Bitters and Amari, Will Budiamans’ Handcrafted Bitters, and Brad Thomas Parsons’ A Spirited History of a Classic Cure. All of these are loaded with information about the history of bitters, brands and flavors, recipes — not only for cocktails but also food, and even instructions on how to make your own.
Ready to start using bitters in your cocktails? Check out some of our recommendations for a unique flavor element.