Bitter Truth

How a cure-all became a cocktail component


It's 1820. A German doctor sets out for Venezuela to join Simon Bolivar's fight against Spain. It's not long before he's Surgeon General, manning a military hospital and overseeing the casualties, not just of war, but of tropical diseases. Chills, sea sickness. Ravaging disorders. And it's not much longer before he conjures a cure: Angostura bitters.

In the end, Dr. Siegert's secret blend of local herbs didn't really cure any fevers, but the bitters were passed down to his sons, who saw them become a crucial ingredient in classic cocktails from The Manhattan to the Old-Fashioned. They remain famous still today, but make no mistake -- they're not the only bitters on the block.
Long before the term "cocktail" came into play, snake oil salesmen and earnest physicians tried their hands at tinctures and herbal essences, distilling bitters from barks, roots, and peels to concentrate their appetite-stimulating -- and stomach-calming -- properties. Once in the hands of hosts and barmen, some of these concoctions often lived on in a similar capacity, served as aperitifs and digestifs on either side of a hefty meal.

Many mixologists today have revived the practice of creating bitters from every herb under the sun. If you're at the very beginning of your herbal essence exposure, here are a few favorites to keep behind your bar. Remember: When adding these bitters to a cocktail, the idea is to add a just a hit of flavor and structure -- overdo it, and they'll turn your drink, well. You know.

Orange bitters
Very popular in the pre-Prohibition years, orange bitters are derived principally from the peels of oranges. Consider adding a dash or two to your favorite martini.

Peychaud's bitters
Created shortly after Angostura, by a pharmacist in New Orleans, Peychaud's bitters are a crucial ingredient of the Sazerac cocktail.

Celery bitters

Missing from the market for years, this spicy, complex mixologist favorite has re-emerged from obscurity thanks to The Bitter Truth and Fee Brothers.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: billy900t
    108132 4

    Great introductory article but why not make it more complete? There are other bitters and amaro liquers such as Fernet Branca and wikipedia( lists over 20 others. Why not at least link to more info?

    Jul 15, 2010 at 9:44 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Salvatori
    Hand of Snooth
    93847 123

    Angostura, the Trinidad based company that produces Angostura Bitters, also began producing an Orange Bitters a few years ago. I use the Orange Bitters to spice up a lot of dairy based products (french toast, custards) or in clear sodas (Sierra Mist, Club Soda, Sprite, etc).

    Jul 15, 2010 at 2:24 PM

  • Snooth User: Carly Wray
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    196958 864

    Orange bitters + french toast = something I'm definitely trying this weekend. Thanks for that.

    Jul 15, 2010 at 5:21 PM

  • Snooth User: PBLee
    447962 10

    Call me crazy but, I distinctly recall my grandfather adding perhaps a teaspoon of Angostura bitters to the pan drippings of oven roasted (covered pot roast style) venison before deglazing with red wine for the most delightful and complex gravy ever created. It makes sense because it is an easy and handy enhancement for pan juices made with stock, root vegetables, pot herb, a bundle of citrus peel, and juniper berry. I don't suppose it's called gravy anymore now that we have cable tv food channels to tell us what to eat. I just know it was absolutely delicious and a link to what I think of as pure American cooking. Isn't it interesting that Angostura bitters shows its lovely self in my bar set-up and my recipe box as well? I plan to explore the uses of other bitters mentioned in your article and I will let you know the outcome.

    Jul 15, 2010 at 10:16 PM

  • Snooth User: MrWhoopie
    133455 1

    Justin Wilson used Angostura and Peychaud in some of his recipes.

    Jul 18, 2010 at 6:37 PM

  • Snooth User: Hareton
    484868 15

    It's very difficult to find orange bitters in Canada, so I found a recipe and it is currently being 'made' in a jar at the back of a dark cupboard.

    If you can't find it to purchase...then make your own!

    Sep 21, 2010 at 9:30 PM

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