A slightly bittered history

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The earliest birth of bitters can be traced back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who through drawings we have uncovered, may have been infusing medicinal herbs into jars of wine. This practice continued and improved even past the Middle Ages. In the early 19th century, the British added herbal bitters as preventive medicine to Canary Wine, in turn, making it quite a popular practice among the American colonies. In 1806, an American publication referenced bitters in the new term cocktail, describing it as a combination of “stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

parkers tonic

Parker’s Tonic, Advertisement, 1880s

Today, many of the various styles of digestive bitters reflect herbal stomach and tonic preparations. Those with historic roots mostly carry extravagant claims of herbs hand-harvested in the dead of winter, or on the night of the full moon, or a recipe spoken aloud by ten virgins, or plants picked by hooded monks.

Simply put, bitters are a spiced liquid that adds flavor and complexity to cocktails. They are made by macerating herbs, barks, bittering agents and sometimes citrus in high-proof neutral grain alcohol. Due to their high alcohol content and potent flavor, they are better utilized in smaller quantities.

Perhaps the most popular bitters brand in the world, Angostura was served as a medicinal elixir for Simón Bolívar’s troops. This bitter became very popular amongst soldiers and rebels on their way to the town of Angostura via the Orinoco River. Also taken by sailors as a tonic for seasickness, this famous Angostura bitter quickly gained worldwide acclaim.

Another renowned bitter with hints of sweetness and anise is Peychaud, originally developed by apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud in New Orleans during the 19th century. To this day, the Sazerac, heavily flavored with Peychaud remains one of the most popular classic cocktails.

By modern day standards, it seems that every bartender has their own coveted bitters recipe. Aside from perhaps calming an upset stomach, this flavored tincture has taken on a whole new meaning and use in the cocktail world.

Bittermens’ Brunch

  • 45 ml 86 Co Ford’s Gin
  • 15 ml Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
  • 2 dashes Bittermens Orange Cream Citrate
  • 15 ml Orange juice
  • 15 ml Lemon juice
  • 20 ml Vanilla syrup
  • 30 ml heavy cream
  • 1 Egg white

Combine all ingredients, dry shake, shake once again over ice for at least 3 minutes, you may need longer, strain, top with tonic water. Garnish with orange peel.

Who knew that Bittermens, the brain child of couple, Avery and Janet Glasser would take on the bitters industry with such gusto and determination? With fervent attention to detail and by using mostly organic and wild harvested ingredients, they have created a line of expertly handcrafted and creative flavors. Their first effort, a riff on the traditional Mexican sauce, mole, was extremely well received. Bartenders were clambering to get their hands on it. The recipe, being a strong and spicy blend of cinnamon and chocolate, has essentially remained the same throughout the years.

Each Bittermens product is designed to pair with a wide array of spirits, to help inventive bartenders come up with their own cocktail masterpieces.

While the ‘Xocolatl Mole’ is still amongst the most popular recipes, Bittermens has branched out into other flavors as well. The Grapefruit Bitters are flavored with grapefruit peel and hops, while the ‘Elemakule Tiki’ Cocktail Bitters are a bright, spicy cinnamon blend meant for cocktails with tiki flare. They also feature an experimental series so far including ‘Peppercake Gingerbread’ and also ‘Squirrel nut pecan vanilla’ bitters.

By way of Egyptians, alchemists, pharmacists and general booze hounds, bitters have had a turbulent history. So long are the days of bittering agents soothing sea sickness and ailments. With the post prohibition resurgence of these tinctures, cocktails and cocktailers everywhere can now impart a heavy dose of flavor and balance to every sip. To what was initially invented as a medicinal treatment, bitters have developed to being a luxury accompaniment amongst our now prevalent bartending culture.

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Zapotec Old Fashioned

  • 45 ml Siete Misterios Doba-Yej Mezcal
  • 15 ml Aha Yeto Reposado Tequila
  • 15 ml Bittermens Citron Sauvage
  • 2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
  • 2 dashes Bittermens Elemakule Tiki Bitters
  • 2 bar spoon B.G Reynold’s Falernum

Combine all ingredients, stir over ice, strain over fresh rocks. Garnish with orange peel.

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