At most modern bars worth their salt these days, you’ll find a half dozen or more small bottles lined up on the bar itself. I often get asked by patrons what is inside these little guys. When I tell them “bitters,” they sort of shake their head as if they know what I’m talking about.
I explain further that bitters is a key component to a number of classic cocktails, including the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned. But that still doesn’t answer their question.
There are numerous recipes for bitters, two of which date back to the 1800s — Angostura and Peychaud’s. Unfortunately, many have been lost to time.
Bitters start off with a neutral spirit and are often flavored with tree barks, roots, dried citrus rinds, cassia chips, etc., and left to steep for weeks. The most popular bottles you will see on liquor store shelves are Angostura and Peychaud’s and Regan’s, which, like many of these products, were originally sold as a tonic or medicine. And it does have medicinal benefits, particularly as a digestive aid.
In the past decade or so, there has been a huge cocktail renaissance that has bartenders making their own versions; it’s not unusual to see a dozen or more handcrafted versions at cocktail bars.
I tend to stick to centuries-old recipes, but also stock unusual varieties including celery, cardamom, chocolate, black walnut and celery bitters. I highly suggest home bars having, at the very least, Angostura and orange bitters — try a couple of dashes of the latter in your next martini.
Perhaps the best (and oldest) example of a cocktail that requires bitters is the Manhattan, invented in the mid-to-late 19th century. It is still highly regarded as one of the oldest cocktails, and to me, it’s the best, and my personal fave.
Kevin Hopper makes his favorite drink, the Manhattan, at Capitol Bar on a daily basis. He’s probably making one right now.
2 oz. bourbon or rye (I currently like Rittenhouse rye)
1/2 oz. sweet vermouth (Carpa Antica is best)
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Maraschino cherry garnish (not the bright red variety, use Luxardo, Amarena or not at all)
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir (never shake) 30 times. Strain into a cocktail glass and drop in a maraschino cherry (or not — it doesn’t really add much to the finished drink). Sip and relax.