Search & Distill: Finding the Right Kind of Bitter

Not just the most convenient.

If you've ever been to Zig Zag on the hillclimb behind Pike Place Market, you've noticed the curious little bookshelf behind the bar, stocked with all manner of small, squat, apothecary-like bottles. This collection of bitters includes the commercial, the rare, and the homemade. I swear, every other time I'm in there, someone's gifting the bar with his or her original recipe.Zig Zag's hardly the norm, though. In the majority of bars, you've only got Angostura, the omnipresent brand of aromatic bitters. It may rank as the most common bar item in the world, and yet few people could tell you what it or its brethren actually taste like, beyond adding a little je ne sais quoi to many cocktails. "I don't know" is the answer I got from many of the bartenders I polled on the differences between the most common bitters brands—strange, since that's a question I heard all the time behind the bar.If even pros can't provide an answer, no wonder more bars don't offer a better selection of bitters. So here's a little primer to help you better bitter up your drinking life.A concentrated assembly of herbs and spices preserved with alcohol, bitters contain all manner of agents, like gentian root (the most common), angostura bark, artichoke leaf, and sassafras, that put your tongue in action. These compounds also can aid digestion, quell nausea, and help stimulate appetite. Mention at the bar that you're feeling full, and the barkeep's likely to add a healthy dash of Angostura to soda and lime. Some bitters contain an added ingredient, like orange or mint, that's meant to dominate the aroma; orange bitters was once a popular ingredient in many of today's cocktails, like the original martini. To taste the difference between bitters, take a penny's worth of bitters and add two or three times as much water.Angostura aromatic bitters, the bottle that lives in every bar, sets the benchmark, a focused shot of herbal and molasses flavor distilled to medium intensity. Think of root beer with none of the sweet. It's the most forgiving bitters, and you could almost drink it straight. It's the classic ingredient in a pink gin (gin and bitters), made popular by the British Royal Navy to combat nausea. Angostura is the most versatile bitters, adding depth to white or brown spirit-based drinks; it even punches up simple lemonade.Fee Brothers' old-fashioned bitters lives in the Angostura camp, molasses-brown and spicy, but reeks unmistakably of Ferrara Pan Red Hots. Underneath that blast of far too many numb-tongued childhood memories lurks a quick flash of sugar and herbal pleasantness, the wintergreen of sassafras and other piquant spices. Then the tongue-grating bitterness kicks in, and all else is gone. A bitters as intense as Fee's works well dashed into sweeter drinks like a manhattan, or other brown-liquor concoctions. If you're making a drink that relies on a silky mouthfeel, something with more than a splash of unctuous liqueur or an egg white, this bitters might be too much, but you could try one of the company's less-raspy flavored bitters. The Fee's mint, peach, and orange bitters in particular have heavenly aromas that let you add a bit of out-of-season pizzazz to your drinks.Peychaud's bitters from New Orleans has a more medicinal aroma, a less-exotic spice that's somehow a little more sweet and savory, or musky in aromatic terms. The Sazerac cocktail was born from Antoine Peychaud's cognac-and-bitters remedy, served in his apothecary in the 1800s. A true Sazerac cocktail requires Peychaud's bitters, in addition to rye whiskey and Herbsaint. Taste a few bitters side by side and you'll understand why. Peychaud's, drop for drop, provides far less of a tongue-drying or scraping sensation than most any other common bitters, and takes well to lighter, fruitier drinks as well as desserts.At $5 to $10 per bottle, these cocktail additions can be a cheap way to liven up the liquor cabinet, a salad, or a saucepan. You'll be surprised at the sweet and savory enhancements brought about with a little dash of

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