The bitter truth: A history on botanical flavoring

A history on bitters - one of America's oldest ingredients. Share this article

Most of us take for granted that pinch of bitters that makes our Manhattans, Slings and Old Fashioneds taste as sweet. That's because a number of other things vie for our attention when we're seated at the bar – the attractive person across the way, the flaming orange peel, the focused manner in which the bartender is chiseling away at the hunks that'll be used to chill your drink. We've hardly had a moment to consider how one drop of the stuff alters a cocktail in an insurmountable way.

'The spice rack of the cocktail world'
Ira Koplowitz, co-founder of Bittercube​, said it best. He summarized the purpose of bitters to the Journal Sentinal.

"Bitters are like the spice rack of the cocktail world," according to Ira Koplowitz, co-founder of Bittercube. "When cooking with spices, drastically different flavor profiles can be achieved with varying spice blends," he said. "The same can be said for bitters."

Bitters is best as a mixer.Bitters is best as a mixer.

As a solo act, bitters will surely disappoint, as would a serving of garlic, salt or other accoutrement. That's because libations, such as the Manhattan, are a sum of their parts. Bitters are neither the stars of the show, nor stand ins. Still, they're crucial. According to Angostura Bitters' website, the aromatic ingredient is essential for some of America's most revered traditional and contemporary cocktails.

Without a pinch of bitters, an Old Fashioned is simply a glass of muddled sugar, cherry and orange doused in bourbon, finished off with a splash of soda. Try serving a long-time drinker of the Old Fashioned a version of the beverage without bitters and you're sure to cause a stir.

You may also create a ruckus at the bar if you inquire about the inventor of bitters. That's because if you trace the origins of the ingredient, you'll come across not one, but two tales.

Who invented bitters?
Around 1825, Dr. Siegert, a surgeon general living in Angostura, Venezuela – known today as Ciudad Bolivar – concocted a medicinal formula "Amargo Aromatic." Dr. Siegert commercialized that very recipe when he moved to Trinidad, Spain in 1875. One of Angostura's biggest claims to fame is when American writer Mark Twain mentioned the ingredient in one of his musings – an excerpt from "Letter to Livy – 1874"

It read:

"Livy, my darling
I want you to be sure to have in the bathroom, 
when I arrive, 
a bottle of scotch whisky, a lemon, 
some crushed sugar
and a bottle of Angostura Bitters."

The other story starts in Europe and ends in New Orleans. It takes place in 1838. According to The Sazerac Company, apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud decided to add the ingredient to cocktails he was making for some friends. Peychaud's bitters eventually became a pivotal part of the Sazerac recipe, which is believed to be worlds's first cocktail, as stated on Sazerac.com.

The Atlantic took a stab at differentiating between the two popular brands in 2010. As stated by the publication, Angostura is a mild bitters that boasts spicy, orange notes. When compared to Peychaud's, The Atlantic pointed out that Angostura Bitters is heavier. Despite different stories, the two bitters do come together to work in harmony in a few cocktails, including the Vieux Carre, or The French Quarter, in English.

Just what the doctor ordered

"The earliest bitters were invented by medicine men."

The earliest bitters were invented by medicine men. Traditionally, they've been touted for having healing qualities, including aiding with digestion. Following the invention of Peychaud's and Angostura bitters, other varieties of the botanical liquid didn't take off until well after Prohibition, pointed out The Huffington Post.

This could explain why they've made such a comeback in America's diverse dining scene. People want what they've been unable to have for years. Bitters are back with a vengeance, as more creative and fancy versions of them are popping up behind bars.

Some establishments are even opting to make their own bitters right in house. The versatile nature of bitters has been taken to a whole other level, as people are adding flavors – grapefruit, orange, blueberry, cherry – to libations. They're no longer confined to Don Draper's favorite drinks. Now, even the gals in "Sex in the City" would be able to order up a Cosmo and find a bitters that works well in the fruity drink. Drink to that!


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