Friday, 20 June 2014

LOST INGREDIENTS: Aromatic Bitters

by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown

We dare someone to say that they haven’t dashed bitters into a drink recently. We double dare them! Aromatic bitters and digestive bitters are the icing on the cocktail cake. They add dimensions of spice and dryness that complement the work of the spirits, vermouths, liqueurs and other ingredients that appear in nearly every cocktail, even the Mojito.

The Cocktail Renaissance has ignited a passion in cocktail classicists and modernists alike. Intrepid souls are delving into dusty volumes and not only reviving, but revising these potions to suit a new audience of drinkers. However, some of the original ingredients are lost and, for decades, forgotten. How can we convince cocktailians to explore and evolve lost classics unless we are willing to pull up our shirtsleeves and recreate missing ingredients?

We’ve personally gone a little over the top by growing our own botanicals whenever possible from wormwood, mints, licorice, rhubarb, borage, lovage, and bay leaves to angelica, verveine, bergamot (flowers), elderflowers, chamomile, calamus, and lavender, plus fruits: morello cherries, sloes, damsons, strawberries, cranberries, and currants. But you don’t have to spend all of your time gardening to experience and experiment with a variety of bitters.

Let’s start with Jerry “The Professor” Thomas’s favourite, Bogart’s Bitters, actually named Boker’s Bitters. Darcy O’Neil found the recipe in Robert Haldane’s 1883 book Workshop Receipts, Volume 2. (And we’ve added a few tricks for sourcing ingredients and making this elixir.)

40 gr quassia bark [aka: Quassia amara]
40 gr calamus [aka: Acorus calamus]
40 gr catechu [aka: a powdered extract of Acacia catechu]
30 gr cardamom pods, crushed [aka: Elachi or Elettaria Cardomomum]
60 gr dried orange peel [preferably Seville orange or bitter orange]
Macerate botanicals in a clean glass demijohn for 10 days in 2 litres rye whiskey. Shake daily. Filter through a jelly bag or a layer of chef’s muslin into a clean glass demijohn and add 7.5 litres water. Colour with dried mallow or malva flower petals. Age in glass for at least six months.

This is a bartender’s dream. A bitters that takes only a scant few ingredients to recreate and use in recipes such as Thomas’s posthumous version of the Martinez, which was added in the 1887 edition after Thomas’s death.

45 ml Beefeater Gin
30 ml vermouth di Torino
1 barspoon maraschino liqueur
1 barspoon Boker’s bitters
Shake ingredients over ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Why are we shaking? Because shaking enhances the nose on the cocktail and adds a creamy texture to the complex ingredients. 

The secret to making bitters such as these is to macerate in glass, not in uncharred barrels, which impart far too much wood into the liquid. If a barrel-aged character is desired and you don’t have a charred wood barrel formerly used for ageing bourbon or rye whiskey, you can purchase whiskey-barrel chips from culinary suppliers such as Polyscience® ( or Kentucky Barrels LLC ( Adding these to your filtered and diluted liquid in its glass container will provide more satisfying flavour and colour results.

According to some cocktailians, Abbott’s Bitters was the finishing touch on one early version of the Manhattan recipe and appeared in numerous drinks recipes during its commercial life from 1865 to the late 1940s. The replete bitters fanatic, Robert “Drinkboy” Hess found one recipe for this potion that’s made its way around the internet.

5 gr star anise, crushed
40 gr benzoin resin [a preservative available from aromatherapy suppliers]
20 gr dried bay leaves [aka: Pimenta racemosa]
40 gr cardamom pods, crushed (crushed)
470 gr whole cloves
16 cassia sticks [optionally, use cinnamon sticks]
6 gr dried spearmint
3 gr dried lavender [note: do not use lavendula as a substitute]
3 tsp dried yellow gentian
350 gr ginger root, chopped
14 gr grated nutmeg
8 gr allspice berries, crushed
225 gr tonka beans, cracked
Macerate botanicals in a clean glass demijohn for 10 days in 2 litres rye whiskey. Filter through a jelly bag or a layer of chef’s muslin into a clean glass demijohn and add 600 ml water. Age in glass for at least six months.

Considering the complex natures of bourbon or rye whiskey and sweet vermouth, there must have been some fascinating debates about the use of orange bitters or Abbott’s over the decades. But if spice is preferred over citrus as an enhancement, then by all means this bitters has its merits.

45 ml rye whiskey
20 ml vermouth di Torino
2 dashes Abbott’s bitters
Shake ingredients over ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Another style of bitters that has found its way into the cocktail repertoire is the revival of French apéritif bitters such as Dubonnet, Lillet, Suze, and Amer Picon (a category that was popularized after Napoleon provided bittered wine rations to troops in his Egyptian campaign). Before the 1960s, there were numerous brands produced as regional specialties. One that piqued our interest was Bitters de Secrestat, which appeared in some versions of the Alfonso Cocktail, a sparkling potion that was first popularized around 1922, in the French resort town of Deauville. Simply a gentian bitters enhanced by a strong portion of citrus, we found a few recipes that can replicate this specialty from France’s Bordeaux region. This one gives you an idea of its character.

60 gr yellow gentian root, bruised
30 gr cassia sticks
75 gr fresh Seville orange peel
15 gr cardamom pods, crushed
Macerate botanicals in a clean glass demijohn for 8 days in 2 litres brandy or Jamaican rum. Filter through a jelly bag or a layer of chef’s muslin into a clean glass demijohn and add 1 litre water and 300 gr sugar. Age in glass for at least six months. Combine the finished liquid with a white bordeaux, approximately 2 parts wine to 1 part macerated spirit.

Matched against the classic mixture of lump sugar dosed with Angostura bitters and champagne, this “amer” style of bitters plays beautifully off the toast and citrus notes inherent in any champagne cocktail.

1 sugar cube
3 dashes Angostura bitters
15 ml Gentian bitters
120 ml champagne
Please sugar in a coupette. Dash bitters on the cube. Add Gentian bitters. Slowly pour champagne into the glass.

We are relieved that these lost ingredients are not so lost after all thanks to the treasure trove of old recipe books are now making their way onto the internet; to the daring mixologists who are blogging their bitters-making experiences; and the entrepreneurial mixologists who are commercially reproducing old recipes such as The Bitter Truth and Adam Elmegirab. And we raise a toast to intrepid mixological archaeologists everywhere!

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