Un­rav­el­ling those mys­te­ri­ous dark bot­tles of bit­ters


Un­rav­el­ling those mys­te­ri­ous dark bot­tles of bit­ters

There’s plenty of ro­mance when you hear names like cy­nar and gen­tian fall­ing off the lips of your favourite bar­tenders. It brings to mind li­ba­tions and mys­te­ri­ous con­coc­tions of days gone by. They have made a healthy come­back to the cock­tail scene all over the world, in dark, mys­te­ri­ous bot­tles of bit­ters and tinc­tures. Now all we need to do is un­der­stand what they are.


Bit­ters are a com­mon in­gre­di­ent in cock­tails. They are in­tense ad­di­tives or flavour­ings made by in­fus­ing aro­mat­ics like spices, herbs and fruit, in al­co­hol. The small bot­tles they come in, with drop­pers at­tached to the un­der­side of their caps, should fore­warn you that a few drops pack a punch. They are popped into cock­tails to pro­vide an ex­tra depth or com­plex­ity of flavour or ex­tra body, or to bal­ance a drink—sort of like what a pinch of sea salt does to some choco­late. A lit­tle goes a long way and makes all the dif­fer­ence. In­gre­di­ents like cas­sia, cas­car­illa and cin­chona bark, gen­tian flower, cit­rus peels, flow­ers and herbs are most com­monly used in bit­ters.

Bit­ters can be di­vided into four gen­eral cat­e­gories based on their in­fu­sions—herbal, fruit, aro­matic and nut bit­ters. Herbal and fruit bit­ters are pretty self-ex­plana­tory. Aro­matic bit­ters form the largest cat­e­gory, com­pris­ing a com­bi­na­tion of botan­i­cals which, when put to­gether, make a rounded, com­plex flavour. Then there are the nut bit­ters that are be­com­ing pop­u­lar, com­pris­ing the likes of cof­fee and choco­late, for in­stance.

HOW DID THEY COME ABOUT? Clues are hid­den in their typ­i­cal pack­ag­ing— the dark glass bot­tles with retro pa­per la­bels look like they be­long on the shelves of old-fash­ioned apothe­caries rather than bars. In­deed, they were orig­i­nally made as medicines. Nicely pre­served in al­co­hol, the herbs and spices in­fused in­side were meant to cure all sorts of ills, from malaria to stom­ach up­sets and pre­serv­ing youth, and con­ve­niently packed to be car­ried around neatly in doc­tors’ bags. The most fa­mous bit­ters, An­gos­tura, was cre­ated in 1824 by a sur­geon Jo­hann Got­tlieb Ben­jamin Siegert who worked in Venezuela. He used in­gre­di­ents found around the town of An­gos­tura—now Ci­u­dad Bolí­var—and named this drug af­ter the town. He had cre­ated it specif­i­cally for sol­diers in Si­mon Bolí­var’s army, and it was meant to counter di­ges­tive prob­lems and stom­ach up­sets. Since 1875, it has been pro­duced in Trinidad and Tobago, and is till now the most fa­mous and well-used bit­ters in bars all over the world. It is said that only five peo­ple know its recipe.


Sev­eral well-known clas­sics call for bit­ters. Saz­erac, Old Fash­ioned, Sin­ga­pore Sling, Man­hat­tan, Tuxedo No. 2, Rob Roy, Dark and Stormy, the list goes on.

If you are plan­ning a home bar, the bit­ter to buy is the grandma of them all, An­gos­tura Bit­ters. There are plenty of cock­tails that make use of this. If you are plan­ning to recre­ate some of the Pro­hi­bi­tion era or craft cock­tails at home, get a bot­tle of Pey­chaud’s Bit­ters, an­other clas­sic and a gen­tian-based bit­ter made in New Or­leans in the mid-1800s, with a lighter body and sweeter taste than An­gos­tura.

ARO­MATIC BIT­TERS VER­SUS AMARO A last word about bit­ters. Don’t con­fuse them with amaro or di­ges­tif bit­ters, which are meant to be drunk neat or as a mixer. Th­ese would be lovely li­ba­tions like Cam­pari, Pimms No.1, Aperol, Jäger­meis­ter, Fer­net Branca and Cy­nar, which make for an­other story al­to­gether.

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