Why bitters are back on the bar: A few little drops pack a big punch in cocktails

No wonder we're learning to love them again, says Christopher Hirst

If you happen to have visited a cocktail bar recently, you might have noticed that the forest of spirits has been augmented by a sapling colony of much smaller bottles, often decorated with ornate, old-fashioned labels. These are cocktail bitters, customarily added in minute quantities – usually a drop or two – but making a disproportionate contribution in terms of flavour and aftertaste. In the past year or two, such potent tinctures have become must-have ingredients for top-end bartenders.

Lee Potter Cavanagh, group bars manager at Hix Restaurants, recommends starting with three of them. "If you're interested in cocktails, you should first go for the traditional aromatic bitters, Angostura and Peychaud's, plus one of the orange bitters. After that, you can go crazy."

New kids on the bar include Bitter Truth from Munich, Bitter End from Santa Fe, Dr Adam Elmegirab's Bitters from Aberdeen, Bittermens from New Orleans and Bob's Bitters, made in London but bearing a Kiwi on the label. Leading mixologists Gary Regan and Dale DeGroff are marketing their own-name brands. The boom has even generated an informative guide. Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All by Brad Thomas Parsons, which gives details on how to make your own, including rhubarb, peach and, for the adventurous, charred cedar.

With its oversized, chatty label ("Made with the same ingredients since 1824"), Angostura is still the daddy. "It's affordable and still one of the great bitters," Cavanagh says. Made in Trinidad and with a hefty 44.7 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume), it is described by no less an authority than Ernest Hemingway as having "an aromatic, varnishy taste".

The bitter herb gentian is mentioned as the prime ingredient, but it tastes as if cloves are also present. Once known in Britain for its transient role in a pink gin (Angostura is used to "wash" the glass before being thrown away), it is also a key ingredient in the Manhattan, where it moderates the sweetness of red vermouth to produce one of the greatest of all cocktails. For a grown-up refresher, add six dashes of Angostura to an ice-filled beaker and top up with sparking water. Or you could try the tip advocated in old adverts and add it to the water in your ice tray for dusky pink cubes.

Peychaud's Bitters (35 per cent ABV) was first made in New Orleans in 1838 by a Creole pharmacist. A slight medicinal tang is detectable in the cherry- red compound (now manufactured in Kentucky). With gentian and a light aniseed spicing, it is the sweetest of aromatic bitters. If you've a fondness for New Orleans cocktails such as the Sazerac, Peychaud's is essential; the acquisition of a bottle may lead you pleasantly astray, Louisiana-style.

A new version of aromatic bitters from DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail, is flavoured with allspice, otherwise known as pimento. His assertive additive (45 per cent ABV) produces a Manhattan that some deem better than the Angostura version. His website (kingcocktail.com) has a host of recipes including a cheeky intrusion into the Sazerac.

Orange bitters was utilised in such venerable classics as the Scotch-based Rob Roy and gin-based Bronx. A dash even found its way into pre-war Martinis. I adore the resulting orange glints, but it may be a step too far for Martini purists (and most Martini drinkers are purists). Founded in 1864, Fee Brothers of Rochester, New York, revived orange bitters in 1951 to scant response. The fruity elixir (9 per cent ABV) only took off with the bitters revival. The company followed it up with a limited edition of orange bitters aged in gin barrels, which gives drinks a profound, lingering aftertaste.

Spicy rivals soon appeared, though their potency is not to all tastes. Cavanagh maintains that Angostura Orange Bitters (28 per cent ABV) is "so strong that I use it only in rum and whisky drinks. It kills the gin. I went through a phase of drinking it in coffee, which is nice." He also finds Regan's Orange Bitters No 6 (45 per cent ABV) "too spicy with cardamom and cloves". Cavanagh's preference is for the German Bitter Truth: "A really clear orange flavour".

Having acquired the basics, the amateur bartender can go crazy. Fee Brothers have introduced more than a dozen different flavours, ranging from grapefruit to plum. It's a tempting prospect, but the results are variable. Many use glycerol as a medium, which oxymoronically produces sweet bitters. A couple of dashes of Fee's Peach Bitters (1.7 per cent ABV) in a Coronation cocktail (fino sherry and dry vermouth with maraschino) imparted a delicious, distinctly peachy background, but Fee's Celery Bitters (1.29 per cent ABV) disappeared in a Bloody Mary amid the swirl of lemon juice, Tabasco and Lea & Perrins.

According to Cavanagh, "Bitter Truth Celery Bitters completely destroys Fee Brothers." Other potent flavours from Bitter Truth include award- winning lemon, orange, aromatic and creole (a Peychaud's-style bitters). Dr Adam Elmegirab's Bitters step back in time with a re-creation of Boker's Bitters (a potion that disappeared with prohibition) and infusions based on black tea and dandelion and burdock. If you're tempted by chocolate bitters, which works best with rum, whisky or tequila reposado, Cavanagh advises using "Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters – the best that I've found". He uses it in a rum-based take on the Old Fashioned.

To deepen the flavour of his take on Black Velvet (it combines Nyetimber sparkling wine and Hix Oyster Ale), Cavanagh uses Bob's Liquorice Bitters. Initially created by the enigmatic Bob for the Dorchester Bar, this much sought-after range (30 per cent ABV) can be seen in the top flight of professional bars. Many of Bob's Bitters are high concentrations of botanicals used to flavour gin: cardamon, vanilla, ginger and coriander. His lavender bitters brought a stylish, elegant tinge to a gin and tonic, while his orange and mandarin bitters splashed into a Coronation imparted a subtle citric tang and a sustained aftertaste. Very highly recommended

For amateur mixologists who want to come up with new drinks or enhance old ones, the palette of bitters gets more enticing by the month.

From around £9-15 per bottle, cocktail bitters are available from Gerry's, 74 Old Compton Street, London W1 or online from Amazon, drinksdirect.co.uk and imbibe.com. For Bob's Bitters go to bobsbitters.com. Fee Brothers' Orange Bitters and Celery Bitters are available at branches of Marks & Spencer

Christopher Hirst was named Food Writer of the Year at this week's Fortnum and Mason Food and Drink Awards

Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Extras
indybest

Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition