I was asked to be a part of a recent seminar on the subject of cocktail bitters, and it was suggested that I initiate the discourse with the words, “Hi, I’m Ted Haigh, and I’m very, very bitter.” I was only too glad to oblige.
Historically, a cocktail would never have been a cocktail without bitters. I could write a book on the subject, turn your ear to mush, and still have enough hot air left to go around the world in 80 days. So I won’t tackle the whole thing here, but perhaps just a short overview.
Bitters fall into 3 broad categories: Aromatic, fruit, and aperitif bitters. The most famous brand, Angostura (and I’d link to their website if it weren’t so bombastic) is an aromatic bitters. Aromatic bitters could weigh in at up to 100 proof and yet were still sold during Prohibition because they were considered “non-potable alcohol” which in this case meant they were simply too bitter to drink straight – or even in more than scant dashes. The same was (and is) true of fruit bitters.
Dubonnet, Fernet Branca, and Malort (more correctly Malört) are all aperitif bitters. This means that, though bitter to one extent or another, they were dilute or balanced enough with sweetness to be consumed straight – to promote appetite before a meal. Even vermouth falls correctly into this category.
Fruit bitters, the real subject of this column, are by their nature generic and so are identified by the specific fruit that informs the flavor of each. There were mainly just two; peach bitters and orange bitters. I am personally responsible for the fact that we can obtain peach bitters at all, through my collaboration with cocktail mixer producers Fee Brothers over a decade ago. I’m at least partially responsible for the growing popularity of orange bitters too. When half-century old recipes initially piqued my interest in the subject, there were simply none to be found – not in 1991. Having searched far and wide, I ended up on the phone with the chairman of Angostura International in Trinidad and through him was eventually guided to a small century-old family business in Rochester, New York: Fee Brothers. They made products largely for a regional market and one such product was orange bitters. By the time I became the cocktail & spirits maven for AOL four years later, I was all too happy to share this information, resurrect long-fallow drinks that called for the ingredient, and generally extol its many virtues. News spread rapidly among cocktail devotees.
But now I’m bitter. Why? Because the bitters revolution is moving too slowly for my impatient ass. Manhattans, Rob Roys and Old Fashioneds should never be made without bitters, yet often still are. All of you mid-century moderns should be mixing your classic Martinis with a traditional dash of orange bitters, but you aren’t because they remain perplexingly hard to find.
Note well, however, they are much handier now than when I went a-stalking them. Back in the days before, during, and directly after Prohibition, there were dozens of orange bitters brands. No liquor store would be without them. Consumers had their favorites, because even with a product so seemingly simple as orange bitters, different brands had widely varying nuances. Famed author of 1947’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (as well as the basis for my notorious Mixilator,) David Embury endorsed a long-departed British brand, Field’s. When eventually I was able to obtain vintage orange bitters, my favorite became the equally defunct Schiefflin’s Old House Orange Bitters. Just knowing that Fee Brothers still gamely sold the stuff freshly bottled was no small comfort. Interest in orange bitters (and bitters in general) has grown nimbly in the intervening years. There are now not one, but five brands of orange bitters on the market, though not all are available to everyone. Please meet the contestants:
Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters: These, while being thoroughly (and appropriately) bitter, have the flavor of candied orange. They integrate well in sweeter, fruitier drinks that sorely need balancing. Fee’s is the best-known orange bitters brand currently made and is available via the Web, in Los Angeles from Surfa’s Restaurant Supply, and in New York at a store I will reveal shortly.
Regans’ Orange Bitters #6: These are the brainchild of my dear friends Gary and Mardee Regan and are produced by the historic Sazerac Company. I designed the label for this brand. Theirs is the most complexly flavored brand on the market. The subtle orange underlies tones of cardamom and coriander. It works well in aromatic drinks with dark spirits, wines, and vermouths where the orange character needs to bloom incrementally and through other flavors – as crocuses bloom through humus in early spring. Sazerac has excellent distribution and hopefully this brand will be more widespread in the future. It can be ordered via the Web via Sazerac’s subsidiary, Buffalo Trace. It is also available in New York at a store I will reveal shortly.
Hoppe Orange Bitters: This is a Dutch brand in a large bottle. A brand representative promised to send me some a year and a half ago but never did. When I was in England touring with Plymouth Gin, I picked up a bottle and from my taste test, surmised they felt discretion was the better part of valor. While orangey, it is rather dilute and with little concentrated bitterness; almost an orange aperitif bitters. Of these, half an ounce is interesting in tall drinks like a Tom Collins or inventive highballs, but I cannot recommend them to be used in the manner of traditional orange bitters. They are prevalent throughout Europe and England, but not available in the States.
Stirrings Blood Orange Bitters: The authors of these bitters come not from the liquor industry or its adjunct devotees. As such, they take some self-aware liberties with the chemistry that they mightn’t if they had more of a history with alcohol. As they put it, this is “a modern interpretation of a classic.” Flavor-wise (and again as the creators are obviously aware) this is spicier, more overtly orangey, and very diffuse in bitterness. Oh, the slight bitter gentian sneaks up in the aftertaste, but it has largely lost its aperitif effects in classic dash-and-drop bitters doses. It works well, though, as do all aromatic bitters, as a burst of flavor. The opportunities most importantly missed in these bitters are two, and they are interrelated: First, they are nonalcoholic. While this allows bitters use by an alcohol-free audience (a very good thing) it also misunderstands the reason for alcohol as a base. Alcohol adds zing, punch, and kick, true, but so does the citric acid they use instead. The problem is that alcohol is also a preservative, and citrus is not. You can’t keep a bottle of this, unrefrigerated, behind a bar for all too long I suspect. It, like old Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial, will simply go bad. Unfortunately, bitters DO stay behind the bar for quite some time, and a product long comatose like orange bitters, well, it might be back there quite a while. I’ve walked into bars had had ‘em serve me orange bitters in excellent cocktails where the bitters bottle had been behind the bar for 20 years, but they contained alcohol. While no bitters maker wants their product to sit around that long, that’s the way this trend is going to start – slow. These aren’t the first orange bitters without alcohol, just the first since Prohibition. I recommend Stirrings Blood Orange Bitters in nonalcoholic sparkling cider and in true cocktails where bitterness isn’t an issue but a bolt of flavor is. Keep this brand refrigerated. And Nantucket Off Shore? I highly recommend experimenting with (horrors) an alcohol base. I’d requested a line up of brick-and-mortar stores across the country that sold this product, but at this point your best bet is online.
Hermes Orange Bitters: Produced in Japan by Suntory producers of the popular Midori. This brand is the closest on the market to the flavor of 1930s orange bitters. It is overtly orangey with spicy undertones. It would be my choice in a 7 to 1 1950s-style gin Martini. Crank up the Stan Kenton and go. Up to a year ago, this brand might’ve required a trip to Japan to obtain, but for one little store in Brooklyn, New York.
Okay, okay, I’ll tease you no longer. The store is a unique little spirits shop run by an exceedingly charming woman who calls her business and herself LeNell. Tonya (LeNell) Smothers has a formidable knowledge of spirits – especially of bitters. Her website displays as exhaustive a list of currently made bitters as exists outside of my own head. She misses only the Hoppe product. Dear readers, if you live where you cannot obtain the bitters of your desire, I recommend you email or call LeNell. Suddenly, the bitters world just got a lot smaller, by which I mean closer, by which I mean happier.
The amazing dichotomy here is how fast these bitters, all orange bitters, all entirely individual, have created this new market while still being so relatively unknown in the larger world of bars and cocktails. I’m not playing favorites here either. Frankly, a committed Mixologist could stand to have each available brand on hand, so different are they. Your Doctor can personally demonstrate cocktails that show each to its best advantage, for which use of the others would be a compromise. That better drinking establishments can’t manage to stock even one makes me very very bitter. Between you, these forward-looking purveyors, and me that may well soon change.