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Cocktail revolution revives the role of bitters

on 14/04/11 at 1:56 pm

Booze News

Even the most casual of drinkers likely has a bottle of Angostura bitters stashed somewhere in the kitchen.

But celery bitters? Blackstrap? Mexican mole? Memphis barbecue?

They’re all out there, as are bitters meant to conjure specific drinks (Tiki), cultures (Creole, Thai, Moroccan), people (cocktail pioneer “Professor” Jerry Thomas), and even places (Boston). And, when used properly, the affects are anything but bitter.

“The word ‘bitter’ is an unfortunate name for the product,” says Joe Fee, fourth-generation owner of Fee Brothers, established in Rochester, N.Y., in 1863. Fee Brothers began producing its flagship Old Fashion (Aromatic) bitters in the 1950s and now sells a dozen varieties of the alcohol and herb-based flavoring agents, including Aztec chocolate, West Indian orange and plum, introduced last summer.

“Why in the world would anybody willingly put something called bitters into a drink and hope for a good outcome?” Fee asks. “Really, it all comes down to getting (the public) to recognize that there are taste receptors in the mouth: You’ve got salty, you’ve got sweet, you’ve got sour and you’ve got bitter. You really want anything that you’re eating or drinking to tickle all of those, or it’s going to taste shallow.”

Just as a pasta sauce made from scratch should incorporate a balance of salty, sweet, sour and bitter flavors, so should a cocktail, Fee says. And 99 percent of the time, if a drink’s balance is not quite right, bitters will do the trick.

As Fee says, “Bitters are the cure-all for your mixing woes.”

Bitters are essentially the allspice of your home bar, which is why they’re worth stocking. Not to mention, they’re cheap and take up little space, and a few drops go a long way.

The original cure-all was the gentian root-based Angostura, developed in the 1820s by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Sieger as a tonic to sooth seasickness. Manufactured in its Venezuelan namesake and exported to the British Royal Navy, Angostura was taken with a few shots of Plymouth Gin, which subsequently took on a pink hue. The resulting cocktail, pink gin, crept into British bars in the mid-1800s.

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