No, not a room full of your exes – bitters are Weapon X of many a bartender, and the unsung hero of many a classic cocktail. “Think of bitters as the spice rack behind the bar,” says Joe Fee, co-owner of the four-generations-old bitters producer Fee Brothers.
Bitters began as the brainchild of Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a German doctor in the wilds of Venezuela circa 1824, who concocted an extract of angostura tree bark as an appetite stimulant for malaria patients. Rough-n-ready man that he was, Siegert added the invention to his nightly nip of gin.
“He found out that it brought out the botanicals in the gin,” Fee explains. “He took the recipe home, and the rest is history.”
Contemporary bar-hoppers may be interested – if not stunned – to learn that the history of the cocktail goes back to at least 1803. Back in the day (way back, apparently), a mixed drink was not only an imbibing experience, but also a culinary one. A 19th century cocktail was made to engage the entire palate, thus making bitters an intrinsic part of the art, and ranged from crowd-pleasing cherry and peach to the more mind-boggling celery and quinine.
But then came the 20th century, and the 13 party-pooping years of Prohibition. “Our best and brightest bartenders took off,” laments Fee, “and took their knowledge with them. People stopped using bitters, and forgot how to use them.”
Several bitters producers went out of business. When Prohibition ended in 1933, into the void stepped the flavored cocktails, the piña coladas and margaritas, whose exotic (and easy-to-make) appeal pushed bitters even further into obscurity.
It didn’t help that the name is the taste: Fee admits that by themselves, bitters are all but unpalatable. “Bitters will never be the star of a cocktail. It’ll always be the best supporting actor,” he says. However, modern medicine divides the taste receptors of the human tongue into either “sweet” or “bitter” categories; a good chef knows that to ignore one leaves the other overwhelmed.
“And change is afoot,” says Fee, noting that Fee Brothers now produces 14 bitters flavors, from classic cherry to the limited-edition Old Fashion Bitters, which are aged in freshly emptied oak whiskey barrels. “Bitters are hugely increasing in popularity,” he continues. “The ‘craft cocktail’ movement is sweeping the world, city by city. Modern mixologists are opening bars, making really delicious, balanced drinks with all sorts of tastes going on in the background.”
Today, fudging a drink recipe when it comes to bitters is mournfully widespread. While a mojito calls for a dash of angostura, a mixologist can safely skip it entirely and not incur the wrath of the Mojito Gods. However, there are some cocktails, namely the timeless manhattan and old fashioned, where bitters are an absolute requirement. Skip the bitters with these classics and kiss your tip, and your rep as a knowledgeable bartender, good-bye – divine wrath comes in all shapes and sizes.