Bitterness Is Sweet on Occasion
Speaking of obscure drinky-winkies, let us now discuss bitters. Bitter, of course, is one of the four basic tastes—sweet, salty, and sour being the others. It comes from old German—it meant bite, and the Germans totally understood biting. Bitters, generically speaking, are a group of alcoholic preparations dating back to the early days of distillation, days when drinking was considered medicinal. Which, of course, some of us still practice and preach.
I rarely drink spirits myself, thinking that wine is a comparatively healthy (and more subtle and rewarding) way to imbibe, but I do like a touch of the bitter now and then. This can come in the form of concentrated bitters, the stuff that comes in the little bottles, and bitter cordial digestifs, the stuff you pour a whole gnarly glass of.
Almost anywhere you order a drink with bitters you get a dash of Angostura. This is a fine herbal concocton, created in Venezuela in 1824 by a German M.D. and intended as a digestif. I'm sure you know the bottle, a little steak sauce-sized thing wrapped in white paper.
Anyway, Dr. Johan Siegert was an adventurer, and in 1820 he left Der Fatherland to fight Spanish imperialism in Venuezela with Simón Bolívar. The great Bolívar knew a physician when he saw one, and he appointed Siegert his Surgeon General in the town of Angostura.
Angostura was, of course, a tropical place where the men came down with fevers and parasites and stomach disorders of the most unpleasant variety. A keen student of nature's medicinal herbs, the Doctor spent four years perfecting an herbal tincture he called Amargo Aromatic, or aromatic bitters. Angostura is also a port on the mighty Orinoco, and as such was a port of call for sailors from all over the world—the sea sick, the malarial, the syphilitic, and, of course, the hung over. And so the fame of Dr. Siegert's remedy sailed far and wide. In 1867 Dr. Sieger formed a business with his son Carlos, and soon afterward brought in his brother Alfredo. The dapper and debonaire Don Carlos was justifiably proud of the family tonic and took it to exhibitions around the world. It was exhibited in London in 1862, where it was hailed not only for its restorative properties but also for the way it improved the taste of gin. Cocktails would never be the same.
Cocktails made with Angostura bitters include the Old Fashioned, the Pansy Blossom, the Jockey Club Cocktail, the Vanderbilt Cocktail, the Cabaret Cocktail, the Saratoga Cocktail, the Stone Fence, the Swizzles Cocktail, the Thistle Cocktail, the Smiler Cocktail, the West Indian Cocktail, the Widow's Kiss, the Dandy, the Chicago, the ever-popular Manhattan, and its cousin, the Rob Roy, a favorite of my late stepfather, Don Camptbell, traditionally enjoyed on St. Andrew's Day. The classic champagne cocktail, whch improves dubious vintages, consists of a lump of sugar saturated with Angostura, in a saucer glass which is then filled with bubbly.
The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, compiled by head bartender of London's Savoy Hotel, recommends the Spencer Cocktail made with Angostura Bitters, orange juice, apricot brandy, and dry gin: "Very mellifluous: has a fine and rapid action: for morning work."
My favorite bible of bibulous behavior, The Gentleman's Companion, notes that "Angostura was originated as a tonic, a simple to ward off fevers, miasmas, tropical swamp mists, and the general assortment of mauve willies that beset Nordics under the equator…" The author concludes his praise of the formula thus: "No Amateur worthy of name can have a bar of note without a large bottle of these peerless bitters at elbow. They are absolutely essential to creation of scores of the world's best-mixed drinks: drinks which without such aromatic pointing up would be short-lived, spineless and ineffectual things."
Today Angostura bitters are made in Trinidad and Tobago, and it is not only an essential product for any complete bar, but an important element in Caribbean cuisine. Less famous but no less historic is another small bottle of bitters called Peychaud's which was created, and is still manufactured, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Peychaud's Bitters is a pink concoction that is much harder to find than Angostura, and it figures in far fewer cocktail recipes, but it can be enjoyed plain with soda or tonic, or in a variety of cocktails suited to that absinthey taste. Peychaud's was the formula of Antoine Amadeee Peychaud, a gentleman apothecary who emigrated from Haiti in 1795, and who apparently brought the recipe with him from that magical and mysterious isle. Monsieur Peychaud began dispensing his bitters for medicinal purposes in glasses of brandy at his shop. It wasn't long before one Sewell Taylor, a friend of Monsieur Peychaud, began dispensing the bitters as well, at his own dubiously dubbed establishment, the Sazerac Coffee House at 13 Exchange Alley, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Dubiously dubbed because apparently far more spirits than coffees were served there. When that establishment changed hands around 1850, the new owners altered the recipe of what would be regarded as America's first cocktail, by serving the bitters with rye whiskey and absinthe rather than brandy. Thus was born the classic Sazerac Cocktail. The Sazerac is properly made by coating the inside of an old-fashioned glass with absinthe, if you can get it, or Pernod, or Pastis, to which is added the long shaken and strained mixture of two ounces of rye whiskey, and 3 or 4 dashes of Peychaud's on a crushed sugar cube. A thin curl of lemon peel should be added as a garnish.
For more serious bitterness, one can drink glasses of the stuff. Bitter is, after all, one of the main flavor groups, and certain philosophical gourmands believe all of these should be contained in each meal. There's a great little Italian soda made by San Pelligrino called Chinotto that comes in small bottles. During periods of abstinence I have quelled my craving for alcohol with this bittersweet beverage. I dump one of the little bottles into a glass and fill it with soda. It's like a virgin Campari.
Campari is probably the most popular brand of bitter beverage. It is, as usual, a secret recipe—this one formulated by Gaspare Campari in the Piedmont of Italy, in 1860. Over sixty ingredients combine to produce that famous taste, including orange peel, rhubarb, ginseng, pomegranate, bergamot oil, and quinine. I have numerous friends who drink the stuff, but for me it was always an ingredient in the Negroni Cocktail, a real festival of bitterness I enjoyed frequently during my last divorce. My way, it's a jigger of gin, a jigger of Campari, and a jigger of sweet vermouth, shaken until your arm gets tired, served straight up in a martini glass with at twist. I should add that is often an ingredient in sorbetto and it really works well, even poured on orange or grapefruit ice.
Personally, I'm not a cognac or grappa guy. Life is too short. But sometimes after dinner I will have an amaro, one of those biter Italian concoctions that have lasted so long they must be good for you. My wife turned me on to Averna, and she swears it has seaweed in it. Whatever is in there discourages you from swilling it. It's a sipping thing, and with that taste it has to be doing some good. There's a rather nice golden-colored bitter called del Capo from Calabria that advertises 29 herbs. Jagermeister is actually one of the world's most successful amari. Its secret formula contains 56 herbs and spices to aid digestion, quell a cough or, if you drink too much, turn you into Kid Rock.
Probably the most intriguing bitter of all is Fernet-Branca. It's really bitter. Hardcore. Over the years it has been touted as a remedy for stomach upset, menstrual woes, fevers, and hangovers. In the 19th century Fernet-Branca was touted as a remedy for cholera. It is said to cause worms to leave one's digestive tract, and the first taste may give you a hint why. This shit is bitter. It contains a potpourri of 27 herbs and spices, including aloe, cardamom, Chamomile, gentian, saffron, cinchona bark, myrhh, and rhubarb, among the less nasty. Supposely it even has St. John's Wort in it, the hippie Prozac. It certainly tastes like medicine, enough so, apparently, that it was still allowed in the States under Prohibition. But it also has some of the good qualities of medicine. To the extent that in 1978 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms demanded that its opiate content be reduced to trace levels. Does it work? Well, Dr. Fernet lived into his hundreds. And people don't get cholera much anymore. One thing I'm sure of is that if you stick wth this 80-proof digestif, you won't get too drunk. It was a big favorite of my late friend, the great artist Mati Klarwein. I'll bet he had a pre-78 stash. Anyway, I am currently seeing what it can do for laryngitis. I still sound like a butch Harvey Fierstein, but I feel better. It might just be my imagination, but I think the stuff works.