4 Bitter Brands to Know

By Laurent Greco

Bitters were popular before the 1900s and were used in cocktails such as the Manhattan, the Pink Gin, the Champagne Cocktail, and punch. At that time, there were a dozen or so different brands and unfortunately few of them survived. Bitters are back in fashion thanks to the boom in vintage cocktails, and the best known among them today are Angostura, Peychaud’s, The Bitter Truth and Fee Brothers. Here’s a short tour of the most well-known and most tasty bitters, to be used in moderation!

LDH_8618The Bitter Truth
The Bitter Truth was created by two people passionate about bars, Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck. Berg has worked on the German bar scene for over 12 years and chose the “classic” path to learn his trade (catering school). He is also knowledgable about bar history, collects old books on the subject and possesses an impressive collection of bitters. In association with Jorg Meyer, he has written the Bitters blog, an online library of books on the history of cocktails. He is also a member of the Traveling Mixologists, one of the influential organisations of the modern-day bar scene, along the lines of Bar Academy. Meanwhile, Hauck, who is also one of the Traveling Mixologists, started out as a design student before discovering a passion for the bar. He is on a constant quest to discover new cocktails and he participates in numerous cocktail competitions around the world.

Their most unusual product, The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters, was created in honor of Jerry Thomas, a.k.a. “Mr. Professor,” one of the most revered barman who plied his trade in the 19th century as head barman of the Metropolitan Hotel in New York and the Planter’s House in New Orleans. Thomas is also the author of the famous Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks published in 1862.

The Bitter Truth also offers a very complex Orange Bitters (enhanced up with cardamom), an Orange Flower Water that’s indispensable for a Ramos Gin Fizz, a Celery Bitters (the vital ingredient of a Bloody Mary), very intense Lemon Bitters and powerful Aromatic Bitters that develop aromas of gingerbread. The Bitter Truth is distributed in France by CBH.

ANGOSTURA2Angostura Aromatic Bitters

This bitter, undoubtedly the most famous in the world, was invented by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in 1824. The doctor left Germany in 1820 to join Simon Bolivar in Venezuela in his fight against the Spanish throne. While searching for a remedy to treat soldiers suffering both from their injuries and the tropical climate, he created a unique mixture made from herbs and spices that he called Amargo aromatico or “aromatic bitter.” The many sailors who passed through Angostura, a major commercial port at the time, heard about Dr. Siegert’s miracle cure and spread the word on their worldly travels. Very soon, Dr. Siegert had to consider producing his bitters on an industrial scale in order to meet demand. He devoted himself to this task full time from 1850 onward until his death in 1870. His son Carlos took over the business and also contributed to the international reputation of Angostura bitters. Faced with the unstable political and economic situation in Venezuela, the company moved to Trinidad and Tobago at the end of the 19th century, where Angostura bitters are still produced today. It’s the bitter of choice in the cocktail industry and can be found in many classic cocktail recipes.

There are a number of legends explaining why the label is too big for the bottle. The most familiar is also a wonderful illustration of Caribbean nonchalance: everyone noticed the labels ordered were the wrong size, but each person thought someone else would correct the mistake. Since no one actually did, the decision was taken to keep the oversized label rather than change it, and this is how it became the emblem of aromatic Angostura bitters. Another version says that two men were in charge of packaging. The first was tasked to handle the label, while the second was responsible for sourcing the bottles. It wasn’t until they got together to compare their respective findings that they realised the label was too large for the bottle. But because they were on a deadline they decided to just make do!

A new Angostura recently joined the range called Angostura Orange Bitter, a clever blend of citrus essence and oils from the zest of two varieties of Caribbean orange.

PEYCHAUD-1Peychaud’s Bitter
The apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud, born in Bordeaux (France) and creator of Peychaud’s bitter, immigrated to the U.S. in 1830 and settled in New Orleans. He set himself up as a pharmacist in the French quarter. Peychaud loved to act as barman and frequently invited friends who would gather in his pharmacy to taste the drink he had created with his “bitter,” though the recipe didn’t as yet have a name.

Legend says that the recipe in question was the basis of the word “cocktail.” Accordingly, Antoine Amédée Peychaud served his cocktail in egg cups. His mother tongue being French, he pronounced it coquetier in the French style and his friends did the same. Coquetier pronounced with an English accent phonetically resembles cocktail. The popularity of his cocktail immediately spread to the local bars, especially the very popular Sazerac Coffee bar that imported cognac exclusively from the Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac house (later to become Sazerac de Forge et Kotniski). In 1853, the owner of the establishment, Sewell Taylor, named the famous cocktail after his bar calling it the Sazerac. Indeed, the cocktail suited the image of his establishment perfectly.

FEE BROTHERS_4Fee Brothers Bitters
Fee Brothers is a company created in 1863 in Rochester, New York, by the four descendants of Owen Fee, an Irish immigrant. The Fee brothers started out with a Liquor store then went on to specialize not only in the production of their own wine, but also imported wines from California and Europe. Yet it was not until the end of the 1950s that bitters were added to the range of Fee Brothers products. They sold bitters with unique and original flavors: Peach Bitters, Rhubarb Bitters, Grapefruit Bitters, Cherry Bitters and an excellent Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters too, which they would age in barrels previously containing whiskeys from Tennessee.

Images © Loran Dhérines