Cocktail bitters are easy to use. You simply add a few drops to your drink. They can be used alone or mixed and matched the way a chef uses herbs and spices. But bitters are not just a cocktail accessory, they are an institution, with a history spanning longer than you’d think.
The History of Bitters
Well, as far as we currently know the earliest bitters started with ancient Egyptians, who infused aromatics in jars of wine. An example of this dates back to 3150BC, a jar found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Scorpion 1 that contained wine steeped in balm, coriander, mint, sage and pine tree resin.
Moving forward to the Middle Ages, a renaissance in pharmacognosy (the research and use of plants for medicinal purposes), along with distilled alcohol meant that more of these health tonics and herbal bitters became available. They were mostly made from infusing aromatic herbs, roots and spices in an alcoholic preparation. The alcohol acted as a solvent for the botanicals, but I should imagine the alcohol also gave an extra benefit to the preparations.
The medicinal application of bitters continued through to Victorian times. Angostura bitters, a staple of most back bars for the last century, was created in 1824 under the name Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters. They were first shipped to England in 1830 before the company’s name changed to Angostura in 1904, after Dr. Siegert died and his son’s moved the business from a politically unstable Venezuela to Trinidad.
Angostura took its name from the Venezualan city, a nod to its medical use to treat Venezualan stomach ailments, however the city was renamed ‘Cuidad Bolivar’ in 1846. You would have found Angostura bitters on a counter behind an apothecary. They were mostly sold as treatment for stomach conditions, although some advertisement claimed they were a one cure fits all, fixing anything from coughs and colds to liver complaints, palpitations and ‘all diseases caused by impure state of the blood’, as stated in a poster dating from 1883.
From Medicine to Cocktails
Whilst bitters were originally consumed for medicinal purposes, people were quick to start adding them to cocktails. In fact, one of the earlier descriptions of a cocktail from as far back as 1806, describes it as, a “stimulating liquor composed of a spirit of any kind with water, sugar and bitters” So, bitters have been an important part of the cocktail world for some two hundred years.
People were quick to realise bitter notes balance out the sweet and sour notes comprising most cocktails, and add another aspect and depth of flavour, although this was relatively limited as there were often only ‘aromatic bitters’ rather than specific flavours.
Resurgence in Popularity
That said, there has been a fantastic resurgence in the popularity of bitters in recent years. The creative nature behind cocktails means enthusiasts are always looking for new ingredients to play with and new flavours to add to their palate of artistry.
Some producers are really clicking into this and creating large ranges equivalent to a chef’s spice rack. Dashfire Bitters are a prime example. With one of the largest ranges in the world, Dashfire have created something for bartenders, chefs and drinks enthusiasts alike for their arsenal.
The Dashfire Range
With thirteen single flavours this range comprehensively covers the base flavours from Allspice to Star Anise. Dashfire offers four specialty bitters consisting of J Thomas, Creole, Aromatic, and Spiced Apple. And, the extra special Vagabond series formed of three characterful constructions:
1) Mr Lee's Ancient Chinese Secret, inspired by Chinese Five Spice and named after what Dashfire founder Lee’s students called him as their teacher.
2) Chai’Walla, a dip into heady chai spice inspired by tea vendors in India.
3) Mole, Mexico inspired, the bitter and savoury chocolate notes work wonders with Tequilas and Mezcals.
Finally, what is to me, the icing on the cake, Vintage Orange, a bitters made with orange rind and quality bourbon, aged in white oak barrels. It is perfect for classics like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. You can also use it in your cooking.
From Cocktails to Cuisine
Here’s the fun part. When you start to think about what you can do with bitters, it gets really exciting. Anything from cocktails to cuisine benefits. It could be as simple as slipping a few drops of Grapefruit bitters in your Gimlet, for some pep and a twist on the lime.
Or, you could use them while cooking. Add Vintage Orange bitters to a marmalade marinade for gammon or pork, and the aged vanilla, bourbon, orange notes add a fantastic kick to sweet meat juices. The only limit, really, is your imagination. Bitters offer a huge scope of versatility to everything you make, adding an extra bit of oomph, some va-va-voom, something a little extra.
So, which bitters flavour will be your first? Or do you have an existing collection that’s missing a piece? Whichever ones you choose, and however big a collection you acquire, one thing’s for sure, with bitters it’s better. Cheers!