I tend bar; of course I love bitters.
“What are bitters?” you ask. Bitters are a compound of extracts of barks, roots, fruit (often fresh and dried citrus peels), and spices. They're essentially more complicated versions of the single-flavor extracts (like vanilla and almond) that you’ll find in the grocery store's baking aisle. Bartenders use bitters like cooks use spices; a small amount can have a profound impact on the end result. While bitters were originally designed, or at least sold, as medicines, they soon became a popular way to flavor mixed drinks, and they're listed as an ingredient one of the first times the cocktail was defined in print, in 1806.
Vintage cocktail books name a goodly number of bygone brands, often used to balance the sweetness of the sugars, syrups, liqueurs, or vermouths found in those old cocktail recipes. During the highball era of the 1960s and 70s (think rum and Cokes, or gin and tonics), when old-school drinks (like Manhattans and martinis) fell out of favor, their ingredients lost their market. Now that America has rediscovered its love of the cocktail, key ingredients like bitters are back in demand.
Have you noticed that there is a virtual ocean of new aromatic cocktail bitters now available? It’s fun to see how these new brands and varieties change classic cocktails or inspire new creations. While many of the new brands of aromatic bitters feature old varieties like the aromatic, lemon, orange, or celery bitters that were called for in classic recipes, there are now grapefruit, rhubarb, black walnut, chocolate, "Creole," "mole," and "tiki" bitters, among others.
But for now, let’s just talk about bitters labeled as "aromatic."
Remember when there was just that one type of cocktail bitters at the liquor store? It had the yellow cap and the oversized paper wrapper that was always stained brown. Before this renewed interest in bitters, this cocktail renaissance, this explosion of new brands, every bar had that one bottle. It seemed most home bars did too.
Angostura was synonymous with aromatic cocktail bitters. It wasn't actually the only bitters, but if you didn’t live in New Orleans or know the fine folks at Fee Brothers personally, Angostura was probably the only cocktail bitters you had ever seen. Why did it survive the lean years? Why did it succeed when virtually all others failed? I have a theory: If you had to choose one knife to use in the kitchen, you probably wouldn’t opt for your paring knife or shears; you’d choose the chef’s knife. The workhorse. In the world of bitters, that's Angostura Aromatic Bitters.
Other brands of aromatic bitters differ in interesting and useful ways. Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters makes for a drier Manhattan. Berg and Hauck’s Old Time Aromatic Bitters has a hint of sassafras that works in interesting ways with rum and brandy. Fee Brothers Aromatic Bitters has glycerin as its base instead of alcohol, so they are useful in making more interesting mocktails. While I enjoy experimenting with new ones all the time, if I am to tell the truth, most of them end up toward the back of the shelf. Though it may be interesting to use a bitters with more pronounced allspice, sassafras, cinnamon, or anise in a specific drink, Angostura’s more integrated flavors make it the most versatile, a more essential tool.
Angostura Aromatic Bitters is the quintessential multi-tasker. It works wonders in whiskey drinks like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan, balancing the sweetness of the sugar or sweet vermouth. Since Angostura Aromatic Bitters is rum-based, it works well in rum-based drinks like tiki drinks; its bitterness and allspice flavors balance the sweetness and complement the flavors of the syrups and liqueurs. Dashed liberally over crushed ice drinks or dropped carefully to mark the foam of egg white cocktails like the Pisco Sour, it makes a drink more visually attractive and smell like an island Christmas.
And unlike more recent additions to the bitters category, Angostura is not nearly as bitter, so you can use it far more liberally. I know it sounds weird that I list their being less bitter as an asset, but imagine we are talking about spicy heat instead of bitterness. Do you want Buffalo wings served with the world’s hottest sauce, or one with a good flavor to compliment the chicken? Speaking of food, Angostura Aromatic Bitters is great in the kitchen too, adding flavor to sauces and dressings.
These are all very practical reasons to love Angostura. Like any love, my love of Angostura is not wholly practical. Sense memories, taste memories, and the flavors we find comforting reminders of where we are from are powerfully important. As a child, when my family would go over to my Nana and Papa’s house, the adults would have a drink before dinner. Some would have beer or wine, or maybe Scotch, but Nana would have a Manhattan. We kids would get “kiddie cocktails” of sugar, orange juice, Angostura Bitters and cherries, extra cherries. I guess you could say my love of bitters came early. (7-Eleven still sold candy cigarettes at the time—don’t judge.) At this point I don’t think my Nana remembers those Manhattans, but I do.