Bitters have been around since the earliest known cocktails, dating to an 1806 book called “The Balance and Columbian Repository,” which described a cocktail as being a combination of “spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”
That one line, according to master bartender Dale DeGroff, “gives us for the first time a clear distinction between what constitutes a cocktail and what separates it from all the concoctions that came before it: the addition of bitters.”
Bitters describes a category of alcoholic spirits distilled or infused with plant or root extracts, from quinine to wormwood and angostura bark.
Bitters have served both as a digestif and as a flavor enhancer, and sometimes even were described as medicine. Pharmacist Antoine Peychaud, a Creole immigrant to New Orleans, is thought to be the first to have commercially produced bitters, which he sold beginning in 1840 as a liquid tonic “irrespective of malady.” In most cases, it was just used to spike brandy.
Checking out brands of bitters
Bitters have been an important cocktail ingredient ever since, and Peychaud’s has remained the dominant brand, still produced from the original formula in New Orleans.
The other brand most commonly seen is Angostura. More recent competitors are Gary Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, the concoction of longtime bartender and cocktail creator Gary Regan, and Fee Brothers flavored bitters, which include such flavors as Aztec Chocolate and Cranberry and come in diminutive five-ounce bottles.
At Farm Restaurant in Carneros, near the town of Napa, Calif., bar supervisor Ryan Brittle has developed a lineup of fresh, bitters-inspired cocktails, from The Carnivore, a mix of bacon-infused Bulleit bourbon, housemade oak-chip bitters, Perucci vermouth and smoked Guinness foam, to Buddha’s Tea, a combination of Charbay Green Tea Vodka, Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur, honey, lemon juice, housemade Buddha’s Hand bitters and lemongrass foam.
We include the recipe for another of his creations below, of which he says, “The process is simple: Use a high-proof spirit and a bittering element, let the two integrate over time and you have a wonderful component for your drinks.”
Half a peach, muddled
2 ounces Ciroc Peach Vodka
1 egg white
5 drops of hop bitters
1. Add vodka, egg white and hop bitters to the muddled peach.
2. Shake with ice and strain into a martini glass.
Photo: A Peach Diddy, made with muddled peach. Credit: Farm Restaurant