Bring on the Bitters

Michael Nagrant / 11.08.07

Don’t call it a comeback. Cocktail bitters have been here for years.

Even though they’re making a local resurgence, bitters are a couple of centuries old.

Suspensions of natural botanicals or citrus in high-proof neutral alcohol, bitters can add aroma and balance to the sweetness in a drink.

Angostura brand, the most popular version, was created in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, surgeon-general of a military hospital in the Venezuelan town of Angostura. He developed bitters as a digestif remedy for troops’ stomach problems, an application still in existence.

“If you’re not feeling well, 9 out of 10 good classic bartenders will pour you an angostura and club soda,” said Bridget Albert, master mixologist for distribution company Southern Wine and Spirits.

Stateside, Antoine Peychaud operated a pharmacy on New Orleans’ Royal Street in the 1830s, where he and his companions would gather for late-night benders drinking brandy, absinthe and a dash of his secret concoction of bitters, a quaff that became known as the Sazerac.

Despite their popularity in classic cocktails such as Manhattans at the turn of the 20th Century, bitters waned during Prohibition. When the liquor ban was lifted, brown spirits such as Bourbon gave way to clear spirits as former imbibers of bathtub gin moved to neutral alcohols like vodka. Highly aromatic bitters tend to overpower clear spirits, and so dusty bottles of bitters languished on backbars and in liquor cabinets. According to Albert, this gave rise to a common bartender wisdom that a bottle of bitters would probably last longer than your marriage.

New era, new needs

When modern bartenders started to revisit classic cocktails, they found the current selection of commercial bitters lacking. Nationally renowned bartenders including New York-based Gary Regan concocted orange bitters that were fuller and spicier than what was in the marketplace (his eponymous bitters are sold at With increased demand, even longtime bitters producers like Rochester, N.Y.-based Fee Brothers expanded their existing lineup with limited-edition aromatic bitters aged in old whiskey barrels.

In Chicago, Adam Seger, general manager and chief mixologist for Nacional 27, began searching for a more aromatic bitter that was darker than commercially available Peychaud’s. He headed to Merz Apothecary in Lincoln Square to research making his own batch. Seger spent hours studying properties of herbs and hundreds of dollars on aromatics like mugwort (a botanical thought to alleviate joint pain), Swedish bitters and ginkgo berries.

After experimenting with multiple batches of bitters, Seger concocted a recipe that was focused on sweet aromatics such as passionflower and lavender, with a touch of chocolatey, spicy pasilla chilies. He features the bitters in a Manhattan made with Maker’s Mark Bourbon infused with Bahia cigars (which adds a rich tobacco and vanilla flavor) and garnished with housemade maraschino cherries.

For Toby Maloney, partner and mixologist for Wicker Park’s recently opened The Violet Hour, one batch of homemade bitters wasn’t satisfactory. He features seven homemade bitters, including orange, lime, lemon, peach, summer (grapefruit and lavender flavors), hellfire (includes habanero, serrano and Thai chilies), and an autumn mix.

“For my palate, the commercial brands were just too cloying or one big note,” he said.

Maloney found that making bitters appealed to his culinary sensibility. “Just as chefs like Thomas Keller [of the French Laundry] use multiple incarnations of the same ingredient to enhance flavor, I’ll drop lime bitters in a daiquiri to amplify the lime component,” Maloney explained.

Hubie Greenwald, owner of Motel Bar, also sees a culinary connection. “Toby and Adam’s creativity is akin to what the molecular gastronomy guys are doing,” Greenwald said.

Balancing act

A good chef balances sweet, salt, acid and bitter, and so should a good mixologist, agree Seger and Maloney. The best way to understand the effect is to taste the same drink with and without bitters.

Inspired by Seger, Peter Vestinos, head bartender for just-opened Sepia, is getting ready to make winter bitters based on cranberry and hibiscus flavors.

“[Making bitters] is really one of the most wide open fields for creativity as a bartender,” Vestinos said.

The bitters movement has even translated into a local consumer interest.

“Though they’re [bitters] not a huge part of our sales, it’s starting to build,” said David Soto, spirits director for Sam’s Wines & Spirits. “Folks who are reading magazines and going to these bars are coming in with recipes and asking for new bitters.”

With consumer interest and a second wave of local bartenders contemplating their own bitters, it seems the local trend is forging full steam ahead.

Old Fashioned

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

“Old fashioneds are one of the most versatile and interesting families of cocktails,” said Toby Maloney of The Violet Hour. “This cocktail got a bad name when, in the ’50s through the ’70s, bartenders started muddling oranges and cherries in the bottom of the glass. I would say that this group of drinks is ascending faster than any others.”

1 teaspoon brown sugar

2 ounces rye

3 dashes bitters (Angostura, Peychaud’s or orange)

Dissolve sugar into the whiskey in a cocktail shaker; add bitters and ice. Stir. Strain into a rocks glass. Garnish with an orange and lemon peel.

Nutrition information per cocktail:

153 calories, 0% of calories from fat, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5.2 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 2.4 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

– – –

Layman’s Summer Bitters

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Standing time: 3 days

Yield: About 3 cups

Toby Maloney of The Violet Hour offers up this recipe for anyone who wants to try their hand at making bitters. He stressed that this is not the bar’s recipe for “Summer Bitters,” as that concoction requires “a variety of key and difficult-to-find ingredients” that are left out here. Instead, this is, he said, “a generally accessible way to introduce folks to making their own bitters.” Maloney suggests bottling the finished bitters in eyedropper bottles, which are available at The Container Store.

3 cups gin, the higher proof the better

Rind, including pith, cut into pieces, from 1 each: grapefruit, lemon, lime

1 cup frozen cranberries, thawed, mashed

1 tablespoon each: essential oil of grapefruit and lemon

2 teaspoons dried, crushed lavender

2 teaspoons juniper berries

1 whole star anise

1 piece (1-inch long) vanilla bean, split

Place all ingredients in a sealable glass container; shake daily for 3 days. Strain; store in eyedropper bottles.

Seelbach Cocktail

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

This pre-Prohibition recipe was rediscovered by Adam Seger, now general manager and bar chef of Nacional 27, in 1996 when he was director of restaurants of The Seelbach in Louisville. The cocktail is featured in “New Classic Cocktails,” by Gary Regan. Seger builds this drink with chilled ingredients (instead of pouring over ice) to minimize dilution. Instead of prechilling each ingredient, you could mix the drink first (excluding the sparkling wine), then chill it in the fridge before finishing.

1 ounce bourbon, chilled

1/2 ounce Triple Sec, chilled

7 dashes Angostura Bitters

7 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

5 ounces brut sparkling wine, chilled

Orange twist

Mix the Bourbon, Triple Sec and both bitters in a cocktail shaker or glass; pour into a chilled Champagne flute. Top with the sparkling wine. Rub the orange twist around the rim; drop into the flute.

Nutrition information per cocktail:

254 calories, 0% of calories from fat, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 0.1 g protein, 8.6 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune