Liquids: Bitters

During a recent round of research (a.k.a. barhopping), I was pretty disappointed by the state of cocktails in our fair city. While attempting to sip cloying cosmos, flat manhattans, and unrecognizable negronis, I realized that not much has changed since I was a bartender—which was back when Tom Cruise was, too.

First, let me say that Boston is home to some of the nation’s very best bartenders. (And you know who you are, you cocky bastards!) They are the elite mixologists and alchemists who understand the difference between making a drink and making a mess. But they are also few and far between. In fact, while the so-called cocktail revolution of the last decade has raised the awareness and availability of fancy mixed drinks in just about every bar and restaurant outside of McDonald’s, the quality of many cocktails in this town is still far below the standards of our pre-Prohibition forefathers.

I mention Prohibition because, as my cocktail historian friends will tell you, the craftsmanship of making cocktails suffered disastrously in this country when bars went either underground or belly up. When was the last time, for example, you saw a bartender place a fruit wheel or lime wedge on your glass using silver tongs instead of his hygienically questionable paws? Or watched a bartender polish your glass with a white linen towel before she pours your drink into it? All of this may sound fancy-schmancy, but there was a time when such nuances were standard. I don’t say this because I actually remember those times, but rather because I have been to Europe. Yes, and before you swat at me with your Old Glory, remember that although we taught the Euros how to make cocktails, they kept our traditions alive while our parents and grandparents were siphoning gin out of the bathtub for nearly 14 utterly embarrassing years. After Prohibition was repealed, an entire generation of Americans basically forgot what all the fuss was about. And it’s only gotten farther away from us since.

Beyond the niceties of bar service, I believe a far more important thing has been forgotten: bitters. Which is what brings me back to tradition and the roots of the cocktail. At a party earlier this year commemorating the career of Jerry Thomas (the man believed to have written, in 1862, the very first book about cocktails, How to Mix Drinks: Or, the Bon-Vivant’s Companion), a group of bartenders was asked to resurrect or reinterpret Thomas’s classics. What was remarkable to me about his recipes was the omnipresence of bitters. That’s because, according to Dale DeGroff in a more recent text on proper libations, The Craft of the Cocktail, a cocktail by definition—at least pre-Prohibition—had to include bitters.

DeGroff cites the official debut of the word “cocktail” in print in 1806, in a New York publication called The Balance and Columbian Repository. In a letter to the editor, a reader asked what this unusual term meant, and the editor wrote back: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters. It is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. … It is said also, to be of great use to a Democratic candidate because, a person having swallowed a glass of it is ready to swallow anything else.”

Bitters remained a staple of a bartender’s repertoire until Prohibition, and it came in a myriad of varieties. Thomas liked to use a cardamom-based brand called Boker’s, which no longer exists, and in his martinis he always added a few dashes of orange bitters to the gin and vermouth before stirring—not shaking—the concoction. (The rule of thumb, according to purists, is to stir any booze that’s clear or brown and shake drinks with fruit juices, milk, cream, or eggs.) One of the mixologists at the Thomas party was Gary Regan, the coauthor of New Classic Cocktails, The Martini Companion, and, debuting this month, The Joy of Mixology: The Consummate Guide to the Bartender’s Craft. At the party he made a “martinez,” which called for sweetened gin, red vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and bitters. Though that may sound sweet, Regan says the dash of bitters balances the drink entirely. “Bitters can transform many regular drinks into a masterpiece,” says Regan. “They just add so much complexity.” Regan is such a fan of bitters, in fact, he plans to sell his own brand, Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 (available soon at Why No. 6? “It took six tries to get it right,” he says, laughing.

And therein lies the question: What exactly are bitters? According to DeGroff, the term is a generic one for alcoholic beverages distilled or infused with plant or root extracts. “Native Americans taught the early settlers how to use indigenous plants for flavorings in beverages and for medicinal purposes. Historically, these infusions were promoted as medicine to beat the tax on alcohol, though they did serve as effective digestifs.” Their real purpose was to “enhance the flavor of mixed drinks,” writes DeGroff.

According to purists, there are three types necessary to make most cocktails, and even if you’re not very familiar with them, says Regan, you’ve probably heard of at least two of the three most common types available today: Angostura, with its medicinal cinnamon-eucalyptus flavor, and Peychaud’s, with its sweet anise taste. The third type? Orange bitters, which are more difficult to find, says Regan, which is why he makes his own.

As does Patrick Sullivan, owner and bartender at the B-Side Lounge in Cambridge. “Bitters obviously plays a role in manhattans and old-fashioneds, but also in what could be excessively sweet drinks,” Sullivan says. “Just a dash or two can help balance everything out, so it’s not just all sugar.” Sullivan makes a cuba libre that mixes rum, gin, cola, and lime juice with two or three dashes of Angostura. He makes his own orange bitters by steeping a case of Seville orange peels in a gallon of grain alcohol along with a secret potpourri of botanicals.

At the Federalist, bar manager Srdjan Bajas knows a thing or two about bitters, since he worked at one of the best bars in Munich, Schumann’s American Bar, where America’s forgotten cocktail tradition lives on—and where bitters are used with abandon. Bajas says one of the most popular house cocktails there is the Due Campari, made with a sweet white Campari (in limited supply in this country), classic red Campari, a dash of lemon juice, and a splash of champagne. The resulting cocktail is the essence of perfect balance, and will be available at the Fed this fall. You can also try his twist on the champagne cocktail, the “Prince of Wales” (recipe below). Fellow Euro Pelle Johansson, the “bar chef” at Excelsior, is also a self-proclaimed bitters guy and employs it in his riff on the old-fashioned, called the “timeless modern” (recipe below). I love that he uses maraschino liqueur instead of sugar, which plays the perfect ying to the bitters’ yang. Try finding this kind of harmony in a cosmo.

Which was the point of this exercise in the first place: to find bartenders who know a thing or two about balance. I won’t tell on those who didn’t know their Angostura from a hole in the wall, but as for the lass who asked me to refresh her memory when I ordered a negroni, I’d advise her not to quit her day job.