A Dash of Bitters
Well these days bitters could best be described as something you drop or dash into a cocktail to enliven, broaden, or accentuate its flavors. There an essential ingredient in classic cocktails and are playing an increasingly important role in modern mixology. Most decent bars these days feature them and more and more they are house making several versions of their own.
Bitters are an aromatic flavoring agent. Meaning you don’t so much taste them with your mouth but you experience them using all your olfactory senses. They are (usually, typically, mostly) made by infusing botanicals such as herbs, spices, seeds, peels, barks and roots into some sort of very high proof alcohol. The combination of flavors can be endless. Which opens the door to creativity in huge way.
But bitters weren’t always always simply an ingredient in a delicious alcoholic beverage. Originally they were elixirs designed to be a cure for all that ails you. From digestive woes to toothaches– there was a potable elixir for all the woes of the human body. Once bitters became accepted as a form of “medicine” people began to look for a way to deliver that bitter elixir I’m talking about. Enter the cocktail. It was invented (supposedly) as a means of getting the medicinal benefits of bitters into the tummy. The word ‘cocktail’ may have been a mispronunciation of the French word for eggcup– cocquetier. Which might have been the vessel for said cocktail. But we’ll probably never know, as the truth is lost in a boozy haze.
One of the earliest cocktail incorporating the “health benefits” of bitters was the Sazerac. While the origins of cocktails in general are lost, the source of the Sazerac is well-documented. One of the key ingredients in a Sazerac is Peychaud’s Bitters. These bitters were named after the owner of a New Orleans Pharmacie about 1830. This Mr. Peychaud began serving an elixir to customers with various digestive ailments. This elixir became the precursor to the Sazerac. But the Sazerac got its real start in New Orleans about 1859, it was named by John Schiller, proprietor of the Sazerac Coffee House (which was named after a French cognac known as Sazerac de Forge et Fils). Early versions and some purists today include cognac as the base spirit for this reason. But by 1870 the recipe had changed to include cheaper American rye whiskey as a principle ingredient.
Another original ingredient was Absinthe. But today’s versions are more likely to call for Herbsaint or Pernod because until 2007 Absinthe was banned in the United States. I imagine these modern anise-flavored liqueurs offer a similar flavor, but I am sure they lack the punch of absinthe. Unlike the Sazerac’s other ingredients, the absinthe is used as a rinse– a small amount is poured into the glass, swirled around to coat the inside of the glass and then poured out (or down your throat, if have any sense at all).
Lastly, because I know I’ll catch me some guff if I don’t mention this, but Sazerac fussbudgets will insist that you must never drop the lemon twist into the drink. Draped over the rim of the glass is their preferred choice. But I say the subtle spritz of aromatic lemon adds just the right touch.
Bitters! Drink to your health. GREG