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101 Ingredients Mixology

Bitters 101: A Brief History of Potent Non-Potables

Cocktail bitters are something we hear about a lot in the liquid world, but many people aren’t exactly sure what they are. It’s worth your time to find out more about them, as they can be the crucial difference in whether a drink succeeds or fails.

Bitters are flavorings for cocktails. Much like adding salt and pepper to a soup or stew, bitters aren’t necessarily a flavor that you highlight on their own, but rather one that contributes to the overall taste of the cocktail. You might not even notice they’re there, but you’ll definitely notice if they’re not.

Bitters don’t make a drink taste bitter, even though they might have bitter ingredients (like gentian) in them. Their flavors run the gamut from sweet to spicy to citrusy, herbal, floral and more. They serve to enhance and accentuate the other flavors in the drink, adding some extra zing. It’s like putting salt on french fries — they make the whole thing taste better.

The origin of bitters dates back three centuries, well before the era of the cocktail, when they were used as patent remedies and tonics. Formulated by doctors, pharmacists, and charlatans, bitters were taken for a variety of ills, most notably an upset stomach.

The problem was, bitters didn’t taste very good. It was medicine, after all, and medicine isn’t expected to taste good. So people started mixing their bitters with other things to make them more palatable. Once people start combining liquids, you can bet it won’t be long before alcohol goes into the mix. And so it did, and thus the cocktail was born.

By far the most common type of bitters is Angostura. They are a type of “aromatic bitters” that are so ubiquitous they have become sui generis. Made in Trinidad for almost 200 years, the flavor of Angostura bitters has elements of tamarind, clove, allspice, and cinnamon. They add a warm, spicy touch to your cocktail, and are commonly used in drinks like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Pink Gin, and Champagne Cocktail.

It wasn’t that long ago that the only bottle of bitters you’d ever see on the shelf was Angostura. These days, however, there are enough different types of bitters on the market to fill a swimming pool. It can be a little intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.

After you’ve bought a bottle of Angostura, you can start branching out beyond that. Probably the next most used type are orange bitters, and a variety of them are available. Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters and Regan’s Orange Bitters are the most common, and both are recommended. Orange bitters were traditionally used in Martinis, along with other cocktails like the Bronx and Bijou. They can also add an interesting dimension to a Daiquiri or Margarita.

Peychaud’s, a type of Creole bitters created in New Orleans, are a very handy third addition to your arsenal. There are sweeter than Angostura, with elements of fruit and licorice. They are essential if you’re going to make the official New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac, or that other Big Easy favorite, the Vieux Carré. They also make a nice change-up in your Manhattan.

There are scores of other varieties of bitters available, everything ranging from chocolate to cherry, lavender to lemon, and celery to sarsaparilla. Whether or not you will need any of these depends on how deeply you plan to go into your mixological explorations, and what kinds of drinks you want to make. If you do want more, Kegworks is a great place to check.

So don’t be intimidated by bitters. When you see a recipe that calls for them, use them. Once you get comfortable with how the flavors work, you can even try experimenting on your own.

If you’re interested in finding out more about bitters, I highly recommend Brad Thomas Parsons’ book, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All. It contains everything you’ll ever need to know about the subject, including how to make your own. It’s a gorgeous book and a fascinating read.

Cocktail Bitters

Categories
Rum Rum Reviews Spirits Reviews

Rum Review: Denizen Aged White Rum

Denizen Rum is something of a paradox. It’s a Caribbean rum, but it is blended in Europe. It’s an aged rum, but it is crystal clear. It’s a quality rum, but it is sold at a very affordable price. One thing is no mystery, however: this rum is a winner.

Denizen begins with aged Trinidadian rum from the Angostura distillery, which is charcoal filtered to remove all color. It is then blended in the Netherlands with small amounts of 15 different pot-distilled Jamaican rums, giving it much more flavor and body than is typically found in clear rum.

And clear it is. Denizen has a bright, clean appearance, accompanied by a subtle floral, sugar cane aroma. It has a silky, medium-bodied mouthfeel — it’s immediately apparent that this rum hasn’t been distilled to death. There’s still a lot of character here.

The flavor is spicy and dry, only slightly sweet, with a medium-long finish. It definitely has some heat to it that reminds you you’re drinking rum. You can also taste the vanilla and oak that indicate it spent some time in wood.

Denizen is certainly a rum you can sip neat, especially with a couple ice cubes to cool its fire a bit. But it really shines in cocktails. Almost any drink that calls for a white rum, from a Daiquiri to a Mojito to a Piña Colada, will be improved by the use of Denizen rum. Its versatility means you can use it virtually anywhere with good results.

Best of all, this rum won’t break the bank. You can buy a bottle from DrinkUpNY for only $17. Most of the time you can’t even find Bacardi for that cheap, and this rum runs circles around that better-known brand.

Currently, Denizen is only available in New York State, but hopefully they’ll be getting wider distribution soon. This is a rum that’s too good to pass by. [Edit 7/8/14: This rum is now more widely available. Check their website for details.]

Denizen

Categories
Drink Recipes Miscellaneous Rum

Angostura’s winning bartenders – and a delicious new recipe

Angostura Bitters announced yesterday the winners of their 2011 North American Cocktail Challenge. The three bartenders who will move on to represent North America in the Global Cocktail Challenge are David Delaney Jr. (from Still & Stir in Worcester, MA), Rachel Ford (Empellon in New York, NY) and Ryan Maybee (The Rieger Hotel in Kansas City, MO).

Each of the bartenders in the competition had to create two unique drinks, one with Angostura and rum, and another with Angostura and the liquor of their own choosing. I'm singling out one of the recipes that sounds particularly tasty.

 

Five Island Fizz (created by David Delaney, Jr.)

Ingredients:

1 1/2 oz. Angostura Rum
3/4 oz. Velvet Falernum
1/4 oz. Luxardo Maraschino
1/2 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
1 1/2 oz. Barrit’s Ginger Beer
5 dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters

Method:

Shake Rum, Falernum, Maraschino, and Lime with ice. Strain into an empty, pre-chilled Collins glass, top with 1 1/2 oz. of ginger beer. Add crushed ice and top with 5 dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters.

Glass: Collins

Garnish: Lime wheel wrapped around a brandied cherry.

 

I know what I'll be making this weekend. Congrats to all the winners!

Winners
Photo credit: CJ Foeckler