This article was originally featured in our April's members newspaper, One Time Press.
After many years of working behind many bars, I find myself returning to the same two age old questions on a daily basis: Is the bar closed? (which if having to be asked, is normally a 'yes') and what are 'those things there?'. The answer to which is quite simple – bitters! It's normally at this point I can see the light switching on and the intrigue starting to kick in. More often than not, many customers are still not sure what a bittering agent is and will continue to quiz the knowledgeable barkeep as to what these little brown bottles can actually do. In short, bitters are to alcohol as salt & pepper is to food.
They can be described as drink modifiers. A simple dash or a tiny pour may be all that is needed in order to bring a drink together and allow all the flavours to work in harmony. This allows for a vast improvement in the overall drinking experience for whomever is out to bask in the ambience of the ever evolving, high end drinking culture exploding worldwide.
The liquid itself would normally consist of an alcoholic base (typically a neutral vodka, however bourbon and cognac are becoming more popular with the increase of craftsmanship amongst the world of mixology!) and a mixture of herbs, roots, barks and botanicals, tweaked and tailored to deliver a desired flavour profile. In the Spring time, one may opt for a refreshing and uplifting lavender infusion to deliver floral notes to an otherwise classic Tom Collins, whereas coming into the Winter season we may see more cherry & vanilla infusions being used in the classic Old Fashioned to deliver a seasonal phenomenon. It is this versatility and ability to experiment that has challenged venues world-wide to push their imagination and come up with something unique which may put them one step ahead of the competitive bar scene (anyone for bacon bitters?).
Although there is an undeniable sense of satisfaction in crafting home-made bitters, there is a plethora of brands which are already well established and are easily accessible if opting for convenience. Amongst these are: 'Fee Brothers' (Cranberry, Cardamom, Gin Barrel-Aged Orange, Grapefruit, Lemon, Rhubarb etc.), 'The Bitter Truth' (Orange, Aromatic, Celery, Chocolate, Peach etc.), and of course, the infamous 'Angostura'.
Originally created for medicinal purposes, Angostura bitters are testament to how mankind continuously strives to revolutionise the drinks world in anyway possible.
Born in 1796, Dr. Johann Siegart holds the title of being the creator of the Angostura brand. Contrary to popular belief, these bitters did not obtain their name as a result of having bark from the Angostura tree as their main ingredient. Simply put, it was due to the fact that Dr. Siegart had moved from Germany to the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in 1820 to serve as a surgeon in Simón Bolivar's army. It was during this time that Dr. Siegart had unknowingly created what would eventually come to be the worlds best selling bitters. As a surgeon, Dr. Siegart invented his original formula as a tonic to cure ailments amongst soldiers in his regiment; it was from here that his formula would progress into being the most used bittering agent amongst the cocktail world.
Established in 1824, Angostura has witnessed and survived through the American civil war, two world wars and even prohibition. Needless to say, prohibition was a period in time which placed excessive restrictions on the production, the importation and the sale of anything remotely alcoholic throughout America. Although this would not have affected the production of Angostura, which at this stage was now being produced in Trinidad, the constitutional ban on alcoholic substances caused Angostura to be considered as an illegal substance within the confines of America. It would no longer be imported or sold throughout the U.S.A. In short, Angostura's largest market was now out of bounds.
It is then surprising to hear that almost 100 years on, we can walk into almost any watering-hole and it is a given that any bartender worth his weight in gin will have in his possession, a bottle of Angostura bitters. Which brings to question, how did this tiny bottle survive where so many before it had not? Was it the signature labelling with the wrapping being too large for the bottle? Was it the captivating, tasty, aromatic flavour profile that convinced consumers to request it even after it had been banned for thirteen years? Or was it by mere chance? Perhaps all of these are factors in its longevity, however Angostura has become so embossed within cocktail history that it could never truly disappear from the drinks scene.
As a matter of fact, one of the earliest references to the term 'cocktail', found in an article labelled 'About The Balance, and Columbian repository' (Hudson, N.Y. 1801-1807), defines a cocktail as a mixture of 'spirit, water, sugar and bitters'. As far back as the early 19th century, bitters had started to become a necessity in the construction of these newly discovered cocktails. Undoubtedly, this was a massive factor in the popularisation of bitters within mixed drinks. As time progressed and the cocktail world evolved, Angostura became increasingly popular and soon started to establish itself as a necessity for many of the worlds most popular drinks. It was mandatory for the Old Fashioned, it popularised the Pink Gin, and of course it helps balance the sweetness of the infamous Singapore Sling. This meant one thing come the end of prohibition in 1933; anyone hoping to create these tasty libations would then need to recommence shipments of Angostura bitters from Trindad, back into the U.S.A.
For those who are interested in exploring and crafting their own home-made bitters, there are many readily available recipes online. For your convenience, I have attached here a lovely little recipe which has been inspired by South-East Asian cuisine!
Oriental Infusion Bitters:
- 250ml Vodka
- 1 Dehyrdrated lemon peel
- 2 Kaffir lime leaves (crushed)
- 2 Bay leaves
- 1 Lemongrass stalk (chopped into ¼ inch pieces)
- Zest of 3 limes
- 2 tsp Peeled & chopped fresh ginger
- ½ tsp Corriander
- ½ tsp rainbow peppercorns
- 1 tsp green cardamom pods
- ½ tsp Angelica root
- ½ tsp dandelion root
- ½ tsp genetian root
* Pour all ingredients into a large kilner jar and store in a cool, dry place for 3-4 weeks ensuring that it is shaken on a daily basis to help the flavours infuse. When complete and finished to own personal preference, strain and store the end product and store in a small dasher bottle ready to use as and when needed.
Written by Proinseas Cosgrove, reppin' OTG from Northen Ireland! 👊