Bitter Truth

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How a cure-all became a cocktail component
By Carly Wray

This article originally appeared in TheSpir.it

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.

5 New Bitters for Your Bar

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