Which lasts longer, your cocktail bitters or your marriage?
According to Bridget Albert, master mixologist for distribution company Southern Wine and Spirits, this is a classic debate among old-school bartenders. And in a world of late nights doused in liquor, it’s a good bet the bitters will still be there after the matrimony sours. Albert says, “I’ve never tried an expired bitters, so I’m gonna say they’ll outlive us. That and Twinkies.”
Bitters—a liquid made from the distillation of botanicals such as herbs, flowers and roots—are a staple ingredient in cocktails like the Manhattan and the mojito. At the turn of the 20th century, bitters manufacturers were as numerous as small-plates restaurants in Chicago today, but after Prohibition (and then a turn toward neutral spirits like vodka), they’re now as rare as guys looking for meaningful relationships at a 4am bar. That is, unless you know where to look—the shelves behind some of the country’s best bars (from Portland, Oregon, to New York City) are suddenly brimming with glass jars filled with housemade liquor infusions, with bitters leading the pack as a mark of a top-notch watering hole.
First created in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, surgeon-general of a military hospital in the Venezuelan town of Angostura, bitters were developed as a digestif remedy for the troop’s stomach problems. Stateside, Antoine Peychaud operated a pharmacy on New Orleans’ Royal Street in the 1830s, where he and his buddies 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 Mardi Gras favorite, the Sazerac. These days, Adam Seger, resident mixologist and sommelier for Nacional 27 (325 W Huron St between Franklin and Orleans Sts, 312-664-2727), continues the tradition of those who came before him, concocting his own bitters to be used in a handful of the restaurant’s drinks.
Seger—who makes his own maraschino cherries from Michigan black cherries steeped in lime syrup and Luxardo maraschino liquor—takes no shortcuts, and in the search for a more aromatic bitters than Angostura and Peychaud’s, he decided to brew his own. His initial research phase led him to Merz Apothecary (4716 N Lincoln Ave between Leland and Lawrence Aves, 773-989-0900) in Lincoln Square. There, Seger procures aromatics like mugwort (a botanical thought to relieve joint pain), Swedish bitters, raw chocolate and gingko berries (both high in antioxidants) for his latest batch of bitters. These botanicals are then soaked in liquors, including a 1908 D’Oliveiras Madeira, to complement their flavor characteristics. He lets the infusions steep for two weeks, filters them, and then performs microblends by adding a few drops at a time into a base of water for tasting (raw bitters are so powerful, they’ll fry your palate) until he achieves the right balance.
For his latest batch, unveiled this week at Nacional 27, Seger has cut back on the rosewood (“It made the bitters smell like the aromatherapy suite at the Fairmont Hotel,” he says) and horehound (“It tastes like a hamster cage”) in favor of sweeter aromatics like passionflower and lavender, as well as chocolatey, spicy pasilla chiles.
Seger may seem like a mad scientist, but his results are undeniably superior and more aromatic than mass-marketed bitters. It’s like comparing tasteless, processed Parmesan powder and nutty, salty Parmigiano-Reggiano.
If you want to taste the bitters for yourself, Seger’s serving them at Nacional 27 in a Manhattan made with Maker’s Mark bourbon that’s been infused with Bahia cigars (which adds a rich tobacco and vanilla flavor) and garnished with housemade maraschino cherries. You’ll also find his bitters in the mojito and the Pisco Sour, a Peruvian cocktail Seger makes by combining brandy, egg whites, house-made sour mix, simple syrup and, of course, a bit of bitters.
In addition to the houseblend at Nacional, Seger makes a “private reserve” batch of his bitters that includes wormwood, the active ingredient in old recipes of absinthe that’s said to induce hallucinations. Due to FDA regulations, you won’t be able to sample it, but as Seger says, “The bitters are liquid crack, even without the wormwood.”
This article first appeared in Time Out Chicago in a different form.