Bitter's Back

Before Prohibition, almost any self-respecting cocktail called for the addition of bitters, an alcoholic extract of herbs, roots, or other plants. The first commercially produced bitters in North America probably was Peychaud's, made by a Creole immigrant, Antonie Amédíe Peychaud, and sold in a New Orleans pharmacy in the late 1700s and early 1800s, according to cocktail guru Dale DeGroff in his book The Craft of the Cocktail.

Before Prohibition, orange bitters were a classic martini component but gradually fell out of favor for many reasons. After Prohibition, "many of the varied products that were available before Prohibition never came back to the market," DeGroff said in a recent interview, and the legal limitations placed on selection (by entities like our own dear Washington State Liquor Board), combined with a lack of skilled labor to produce cocktails contributed to the problem. Lack of interest in the classic products grew as modern recipes (and drinkers) started to call for less vermouth (and even vodka instead of gin!) in their martinis.

The best-known bitters in use today probably is Angostura, originally created as a stomach tonic by a German army doctor in 1824. One of the few U.S. producers of classic orange (and other) bitters is Rochester, N.Y.–based Fee Brothers. "Bitters has a unique quality of rounding a drink and making it more mature in its taste," explains Joe Fee, a fourth-generation owner of Fee Brothers. "The heyday of the pina colada and the daiquiri sort of pushed out the popularity of some of the classic cocktails. To some extent, you can blame the blender for that. [But] orange bitters is the comeback item of the decade; people are drinking less, but when they do drink, they want quality, and they want more complex things."

Fee Brothers has recently been joined on the market by Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6, invented by cocktail historian Gary Regan and not yet available in Seattle. Fee Brothers orange bitters is available at Delaurenti Italian Market in Pike Place Market and at Town & Country Market on Bainbridge Island. Four-ounce bottles, priced at $4.99, sell very well, according to Steve Vadset, Town & Country's grocery manager.

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