Good drinks tell a story... and this is the story of those drinks. Each week, we'll be serving up a remedial cocktail lesson for bartending beginners to help you get the most out of your glass, with recipes, interviews, and histories coming right up.
Lesson 4: Bitter Medicine
Many a recreational opiate is born as "medicine," and that's the story with lots of booze and yes, bitters. For basics, the substance is alcohol used as a solvent and preservative for botanicals. That's macerated matter like aromatic herbs, barks, roots, and fruits or fruit peels sitting in high-proof stuff.
The ancient Egyptians had something like bitters in their jars of wine infused with medicinal herbs. More highly concentrated "bitters" arrived in the Middle Ages as distilling and plant-based medicine improved. And, according to the labels on some current bitters brands, their modern-day bitters are a reflection of Renaissance pharmacopeia.
Bitters as we know them today were eventually stirred into the cocktail tradition of the British colonies as a founding ingredient. As early as 1806, American publications made reference to the popularity of a new preparation called a "cocktail," which was the combination of “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters."
With that, bitters coalesced and were commercialized. Angostura bitters, for example, were a defining product of the period, developed in 1824 by a German physician as a cure-all for sea sickness and other maladies. These don't, as is commonly thought, contain angostura bark. Peychaud's Bitters were another 19th century creation, this time of New Orleans. Orange bitters, an ingredient that dates cocktail recipes as older, were wildly popular at the time and are seeing a resurgence today.
Todd Smith is rightly proud of his take on those, an orange fennel bitters, even offering them as an at-home recipe below. He tends bar at the Mission District's ABV and before that did so at Bourbon & Branch and Hideout. Smith wouldn't, however, divulge his celery bitters recipe when we spoke, because according to him "they're the best out there." They are pretty spectacular.
It's what was "out there" generally that set Smith out to make his own bitters (ABV uses mostly his own creations). "Especially 8 or 10 years ago, there wasn't a lot of options other than Fee Brothers, Angostura, Peychaud's. We just didn't think they had enough punch to them."
From Smith, some of the most interesting bitters I sampled from were smoked bitters: coffee beans that had sat on ABVs smoker, or pears that had done the same to great effect. At ABV there's always one smoked fruit bitters option on the menu, and you'll also always find the celery bitters. When I asked Smith what drinks shouldn't get bitters added, he had very few answers. "Maybe a gin and tonic?" he suggested.
But what do great bitters do for great drinks, anyway? Other than curing sea sickness, that is, or making a cocktail a cocktail. "Bitters," says Smith cracking a smile, "just make drinks better."
ABV’s Orange Fennel Bitters (home version)
per Todd Smith
1 bottle of El Dorado over proof 151 rum or Everclear 151 Grain alcohol
¼ cup ried orange peel
Orange peel with pith from 1 orange
1 tsp. Gentian root (bitter)
1 tsp. Grains of paradise (aromatic)
½ tsp. Fennel seeds toasted (aromatic)
Combine ingredients in a jar with tight fitting lid.
Shake everyday or so for 2-3 weeks
Strain and bottle