The addition of a dash of aromatic bitters is what defined the cocktail, according to drink historians, so the importance of this beverage enhancer should not be overlooked.
To help educate today’s bartenders on the history of bitters, noted barman, author and educator Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. King Cocktail, led a bitters seminar titled “Ill Take Manhattan” on Nov. 11.
Held at Bacchanal in New York and hosted by George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey, the session offered a guided tasting of five bitters brands, including how each fared in a Dickel Rye Manhattan.
While the practice of using extracts of medicinal herbs and botanicals dates back to the ancient Egyptians, Stoughton’s Bitters, established in England in 1690, was the first medicinal bitters brand, DeGroff said. Bitters were also being used at that time in drinks like flips and punches, as well as in beer. While numerous bitters brands cropped up over the years, most had disappeared by the end of Prohibition.
In fact, DeGroff said, when he started bartending in 1974, there were just three options for bitters: Angostura; Fee Brothers, which at the time was largely a local brand based in Rochester NY; and Peychaud’s, which was nearly impossible to find outside of New Orleans, and not all that easy to find in the Big Easy.
What’s more, barkeeps were barely using the bitters they did have, DeGroff said. A common joke among bartenders at the time was “What’s going to last longer—my marriage or my Angostura bitters?”
That’s changed quite a bit in recent years as the use of bitters behind the bar and the available brands have increased. Bartender Gary Regan developed Regan’s Orange Bitters No.6 in the early 1990s, The Bitter Truth unveiled its first flavors in 2006 and Tempest Fugit recently released a reformulation for Abbott’s Bitters, to name just a few
DeGroff himself is now in the bitters business with the 2012 launch of his Pimento Aromatic Bitters. “I wanted to do it because I missed the Pimento Dram liqueur that I used to use at the Rainbow Room” where he was head bartender from 1987 to 1999, he said. The allspice-flavored liqueur was pulled of the U.S. market in the 1980s.
Bitters add balance to a cocktail, DeGroff said, with ingredients like Orris root, a natural fixative often used to improve perfume aromas. Clove is a flavor extender, he said, so if you use vanilla with clove, you’ll get more intense vanilla.
DeGroff said he initially created his bitters to use in Tiki cocktails, but found that the pimento (allspice) flavor works also well with straight spirits like Cognac and whiskey. The balancing properties of bitters “will make sweet things not so sweet,” he said.