Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Bitter History

Anyone who has even the slightest interest in cocktails owns at least one bottle of bitters. Most people will be familiar with the classic standby Angostura Bitters. Angostura bitters are named for the town of Angostura in Venezuela. The town was named after the Angostura tree, the bark of which was used for medicinal purposes and in some bitter recipes. Angostura bitters howeverer do not contain this bark, the flavor of Angostura bitters is derived from the Gentiana plant, which is also used in the soda Moxie. Angostura bitters were created in 1824 by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert a surgeon in Bolivar's army. Gentiana is also the main flavoring ingredient of the other common bitter, Peychaud's Bitters, which were created in what is now Haiti.

Bitters are good at staining everything

Bitters were not originally created for use in flavoring cocktails. Most bitters recipes initial purposes were as medicinal tonics often used to treat upset stomachs. Bitters have also been claimed as a remedy for the hiccups. Other ingredients that have been used to flavor bitters include cassia which is most commonly known as cinnamon. Cassia is is often marketed as Chinese cinnamon as too differentiate it from true "cinnamon" which is more expensive and has a more delicate flavor. Orange has been used to make bitter also, orange bitter have been hard to acquire in the united states until recently as they were not an ingredient in many popular cocktails. The resurgence of classic cocktails has changed this and Angostura has began to sell orange bitters in the united states. New York based Fee Brother have been consistently producing orange bitter but still have a rather small distribution area.

The American standard can be hard to find

One of the first cocktails containing bitters to gain popularity was the Pink Gin, which supposedly was created by the Royal Navy as a way of making bitter more palatable, as Angostura bitters had been marketed as a cure for sea sickness by the creator Dr. Siegert and founded his company based on selling bitters to sailors. A basic pink gin is served in a chilled cocktail glass that is initially coated with a thin layer of bitters. Then chilled chin is poured into the glass, the bitters coating gives the drink its signature pink hue. Soda or tonic water is often called for in many recipes.

Not the pepto bismol pink of today's cocktails

Antoine Amédée Peychaud created a signature cocktail for his bitters which would become a staple of New Orleans. The Sazerac is a classic combination of cognac and bitters. The cocktail is said to have been named after the owner of the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans, Mr. John Schiller. The Sazerac has undergone many changes throughout its history, with cognac being replaced by rye whiskey, and the addition of absinthe. The Professional Mixing Guide, written in 1957, contains no recipe for the Sazerac but instead this quote:
Out of respect for the property rights of others, no attempt is made herein to list any recipe for a Sazerac. Others have, on occasion, printed what purported to be a recipe for a 'Sazerac Cocktail,' but so far as it is known, the genuine recipe is still a deep, dark secret.
Delicious brown alcohol

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