MxMoIX: Getting Bitter All the Time

Here we are, folks — MxMoIX is upon us, and our good host Michael Dietsch from A Dash of Bitters has chosen as his topic — wait for it — bitters.

If Michael had picked this one out ten years ago — hell, five years ago — it would have been a very sad, lonely little gathering. Sure, you had Angostura, and the dedicated of the dedicated knew of Fee’s (with a smaller product line back then) as well as Peychaud’s…and that was pretty much it (ignoring for right now that whole category of beverage bitters — the Camparis, Ramazottis, and Suzes of the world).

But how big bitters have become. Three-odd years ago I nearly swooned when I finally found a bottle of Fee’s Orange Bitters on the shelf at DeLaurenti’s, in Pike Place Market; today I mumble in indecision while trying to make up my mind if I’m in the mood for a dash of Fee’s, Regan’s, Hermes or The Bitter Truth orange bitters in my martini. There’s the bottle of Peychaud’s I always turn to, its white paper label stained pink from drops I’ve dashed over-enthusiastically; the bottle of Fee’s Old Fashioned Aromatic bitters that changed the way I think about Old Fashioneds; the brand-new bottle of The Bitter Truth Old Time Aromatic Bitters that are currently redefining my Manhattans; and of course, the hoary old bottle of Angostura, sometimes neglected among all the new upstarts, but always there with a complexity that’s mind-boggling, and that makes me appreciate the craft of bittersology (bitters engineering? embittering?) anew each time I taste them.

But let me snap out of my reverie for a minute and give up a couple of drinks. When it comes to really digging the taste of bitters, I find you’ve got to go completely old school — nothing trots out their flavor like the three best (says I) drinks in mixology: the Old Fashioned, the Martini and the Manhattan.

Erik’s covered the old fashioned today, so I’ll step right past that one and on to the others.

Orange bitters are, of course, a classic ingredient in a martini, and when made properly — that is, in the old-fashioned way I prefer — the drink is a perfect platform to showcase the taste of the bitters, loaded with enough flavor to keep the bitters from stealing the show, but with a cool, clear stage that lets the bitters show what they’re all about.

Martini (Savoy Cocktail Book style)

  • 2 oz gin — (for me, Plymouth is everything I could want in a martini, but Junipero and Old Raj are other favorites)
  • 1 oz fresh Noilly Prat dry vermouth
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

Think ill of Ian Fleming for the pox he’s put on the martini while stirring the ingredients briskly with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Take an olive and throw it in the trash, and dump the rest of the bottle after it — what do you want to taste, your exquisite gin/vermouth/bitters combo (that’s costing you anywhere upwards of $8 if you’re ordering it in a bar), or the salty swill from a $2.99 bottle of olives? Thought so. Twist a small strip of lemon peel over the drink. You may drop it in, if you prefer.

Manhattans, on the other hand, are more versatile, from a bitters perspective. Assuming you can find a bartender today who knows the damn things are supposed to have bitters, in all likelihood nearly all Manhattans in current circulation are made with Angostura. That’s fine; excellent, even. Angostura is perfectly happy in a background role in the Manhattan; it’s that indefinable ingredient that you can’t really pick out in the drink (unless you’ve dashed the hell out of it), but when it’s missing, you know something’s wrong. By all means, proceed with the Angostura.

Unless you’ve got one of the aromatic bitters on hand. Fee Brothers’ Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters have a really lovely cinnamon note that can give a warming, let’s-enjoy-this-by-the-fire quality to a Manhattan. Orange bitters, too — especially Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 — give a nice, spry step to a Manhattan, and Fee’s Orange Bitters are no slackers, either. And while the combination was long overdue, it wasn’t until my trip to New Orleans last summer that I finally had a Manhattan touched with the smooth, sweet flavor of Peychauds.

Like my choice of whiskey in a Manhattan, my choice of bitters depends on my mood (and on my choice of whiskey). For Manhattans I’m all rye, all the time, but different ryes work in different ways. For Old Overholt, the old workhorse of the rye family, Angostura or Fee’s Old Fashioned put a little spark in its style; with Wild Turkey, Fee’s Aromatic or Regan’s orange are what I’ll be reaching for. Michter’s US 1 likes the more subtle orange aspect of the Japanese Hermes Orange bitters, while Sazerac 6-year-old mixed with Peychaud’s makes an especially voluptuous cocktail that you just want to climb into and wallow around in.

Then, there’s the bonded Rittenhouse. My favorite Manhattan-mixing rye nowadays, Rittenhouse pairs beautifully with the wisdom of Angostura, and when mixed with Carpano Antica vermouth, I have a cocktail I’d be happy to drink each evening for all of eternity when I’m called to that great happy hour in the sky.

Or had, anyway. See, after nearly a century of inertia, the bitters world is changing rapidly now, and very recently I had my first Manhattan mixed with The Bitter Truth Old Time Aromatic Bitters. If you haven’t heard of this stuff, it’s one of three new types of bitters produced by Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck in Munich (the others are orange and lemon), and the Aromatic Bitters make an absolutely astounding Manhattan (an impeccable Old Fashioned, too). Somewhat similar in flavor to Robert Hess’ House Bitters (my watery version of the recipe, anyway), the Aromatic Bitters are soft, warm and smooth, with a gentle flavor I’d guess has cardamom / clove / star anise all mixed together. The Orange Bitters, too, are rich and complex, with a flavor somewhere halfway between Regan’s and Fee’s — not as sharp as Regan’s, not as soft as Fee’s, with a fresh, citrusy snap that I’ve enjoyed in the few cocktails (martini, Manhattan) I’ve used it in thus far. I’m only beginning to try the lemon bitters, but they have a lot of potential as well.

If you’ve read this far you’re probably a cocktail and especially bitters geek like me, so by all means, clickety right here for The Bitter Truth and order some of the best new cocktail ingredients to hit the market in recent memory. Bookmark that URL, too — rumor has it they’re working on additional bitters for future release.

Anyway, I’m swooning again, and maybe drooling just a little bit. Manhattan time.

Manhattan

  • 2 ounces rye whiskey (bourbon if you must, but really, rye)*
  • 3/4 ounce sweet vermouth (if you use Carpano Antica, you’re sitting pretty; Cinzano and Martini & Rossi also work well)
  • 2 dashes bitters*

FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, PUT DOWN THAT SHAKER! A Manhattan isn’t supposed to have a head on it….

Stir well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry (well-rinsed) or a strip of lemon peel.

* mix & match your brands

And for total fairness and diversity in your liquor cabinet, check these out, too:

Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 and Peychaud’s Bitters

Fee Brothers (makers of the recommended Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters, West Indian Orange Bitters, Lemon Bitters and Peach Bitters, and the not-so-highly recommended Mint Bitters, which were a nice idea but just don’t work so well).

Angostura — found pretty much everywhere

Hermes Orange Bitters — found pretty much nowhere, except Japan and the occasional lucky export market

22 Responses to MxMoIX: Getting Bitter All the Time

  1. Andy says:

    Does anyone know anything about the rumoured Angostura Orange Bitters that are supposed to hit the market by year’s end?

    Just imagine: Orange bitters with the level of distribution that Angostura enjoys. Sounds like a revolution in the making.

    -Andy

  2. erik_flannestad says:

    Paul,

    What a great piece on bitters. I really enjoy your writing.

    Have you had a chance to compare the Bitter Truth or Fee Bros. Lemon Bitters? Found any good uses for them?

    Still trying to decide on a bitters project for this winter. Perhaps lime…

  3. Robert Hess says:

    I had a chance to try the two different test batches of “A”s new Orange Bitters. Awsome stuff. More complex than Regans or Fees, and perhaps just a little better balanced than Hermes. I’m really looking forward to seeing these come on the market and to see how “A” handles it.

    The Bitter Truth Lemon Bitters are more complex than Fee’s. I really liked them. Haven’t had a chance to try to work up cocktails that specifically feature them yet.

    Erik… here is a suggestion for a bitters to work on… “Celery” :-> There used to be a Celery bitters, and as was specifically called for in some recipes. They would have used celery seed as a flavoring element.

  4. Excellent taste in vermouths… and bitters. :)

  5. Rick says:

    I’ll second the celery bitters – they are used a reasonable bit in The Gentleman’s Companion if I’m remembering right.

    There are a couple of formulas (though not celery) in Baker’s book too.

  6. erik_flannestad says:

    Celery, hmmm?

    Sort of like the base for Cel-Ray soda?

    What else would be in it?

  7. Crispy Critter says:

    So far, the Fee’s line is a bit hard to find (but findable) in Chicagoland. It’ll be interesting to see if the Bitter Truth line makes it here.

    Peychaud’s is readily available here, and (of course!) Angostura.

    I’ve seen Regan’s only once. I may have to mail-order it; I’ve had to carefully ration my meager supply.

    I’ve never seen Hermes here.

    On the subject of rye, the west shore of Lake Michigan is quite a rye stronghold. From Chicago to Green Bay, a wide variety of ryes are available – but Fleischmann’s Rye (a straight rye, *NOT* a blended whiskey) can only be found in Wisconsin. It’s an 80-proofer, it’s cheap but good, and it’s hard to find, even in Wisconsin.

    Rittenhouse Bonded and Wild Turkey Rye are far and away my favorite readily available ryes, though. Yes, Sazerac 18 and Van Winkle 13 are better, but they’re so rare that I prefer to sip them neat. Even so, I’ll always mix a Sazerac or two with Saz 18 – it’s sublime.

  8. Jack Hubbard says:

    I have tried both batches of the new Angostura bitter’s. Did a side by side comparison which included: Fee Orange, Angostura Batch 1, Angostura Batch 2, Regan’s, Hoppe Orange Bitter’s.

    I wasn’t at all inpressed by them. Thought batch 1 had a really strong nose but didn’t have a depth of flavour. Batch 2 had a weaker nose than one and a slightly stronger taste but still lacked that depth that you expect from regan’s or fee’s. Over all
    if i had to pick one orange bitter’s to have on my bar it would be regan’s by far.

  9. Jim Harmon says:

    Any reason to the “no gin in the tin” rule? I’ve been told that elements in gin react with elements in the steel in the shaker to cause off flavors.

  10. Niko-San says:

    I also had the chance to try angosturas 2 prototype new orange bitters in october in Their facility in Port of Spain. I found it to be more spiced, deeper and less “orangepeel in your face”-like than the fee´s. Wonderful..
    Btw, Anyone know of website which sells Hermes bitters in europe?

    Cheeers
    Niko-san

  11. Angostura should be ready to drop its new Orange Bitters in UK before the winter 2007.

  12. MonkeyBoy says:

    I first learned about Hermes Orange Bitters about a year ago. I was heading to Japan and asked my friends at the Zig Zag whether there was anything I could get them. Suntory Hermes Violet and Orange Bitters were the two items that popped to the top of the list. Short of a flight to Tokyo or friends in Japan that you can call upon, I think it’s very unlikely that you’ll come across this bitters.

  13. Ken Loon says:

    Try this site for Hermes Orange Bitters
    http://www.tokyobaron.com/bottles/_hermes.php

    They’ll ship to Europe too.

  14. kenito799 says:

    Thank you for your research and excellent recipes. Here are my notes:

    Martini: the Vya dry vermouth elevates a Martini to the sublime:
    3:1 Plymouth:Vya, 1 dash Regan’s orange bitters, garnish with a twist. Incredibly floral, aromatic, balanced…but be sure not to overdue the bitters, Regan’s strong clove/cardamom flavors must be held in check or they throw the drink off balance. An olive, by the way, even rinsed, destroys the delicate flavor of this Martini. Vya would be a good bet for a Hendrick’s Martini, I think, I will have to try it.

    Manhattan: Rittenhouse bonded and Punt e Mes, using your recipe; varying the bitters provides a range of different notes in this fabulously spicy Manhattan. I favor the twist as a garnish, somehow inhaling the lemon oil as you take the first sip serves as a palate cleanser and allows the flavors to shine.

  15. JonO says:

    in defense of olives
    I agree, an olive from a 2.99 jar of random olives or whatever is perhaps not a suitable complement to a properly made top shelf sort of cocktail. Now, where *I’m* from, I have access to two wonderful sources of olives (Surdyk’s cheese shop, attached to Surdyk’s liquor store where I also buy my booze; and St. Martin’s at the farmers market).

    Indeed not in the exact martinis you’ve described, both in the post and in the comments, but the variety and quality of some of these French olives lends a nose and depth to a martini. Think of it as something that plays the role a dash of bitters or other perfumes might play. At ten bucks a pound, they exceed the sneer-baiting $3 sort. But must we sniff at the cost of ingredients now, really?

    Note, I’m not a philistine. I write this comment while sipping on the martini exactly as delineated in the post. Mmm. Love that Fee’s orange like this.

  16. Dave D. says:

    I mix Manhattans for a small group of Rye loving friends and tend to use Angostura and Vya sweet vermouth. It’s a great combination we’ve gravitated to over the years.

    It will be nice to try out some of the other bitters suggestions here, just to spice things up.

    Great Blog BTW.

    Cheers.

  17. I was just up researching bitters, and noticed you guys talking about the hermes. I have a brother in Japan, I guess I’ll have him send some over. Also about the celery bitters…..I tried some homemade stuff down in Portland at a cool little joint called Clyde Common. Go down and check it out.

    Jesh

  18. [...] in partnership with Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck at The Bitter Truth — whose bitters I’ve also gushed about before, and who cap the package by being really great guys as well — Bittermens is putting their [...]

  19. [...] part to the more floral aromatic taste that is the Carpano Antica vermouth. As Paul noted in this post from a while back, the use of bitters in this cocktail is not a foregone conclusion. I like using [...]

  20. [...] boozy drinks. For months on end, I’ll venture little further into the realm than the occasional Manhattan or Boulevardier (I’m exempting the Negroni from this argument, with its base of gin, along with [...]

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