Flavored with roots, herbs, barks, and dried fruits, bitters are spirits with potent powers. Hundreds of years ago, many were marketed as tonics and elixirs. They were hugely popular ingredients in pre-Prohibition cocktails, but they nearly faded away in the decades after the passage of the 21st Amendment. Luckily, bitters have made a resurgence on the American cocktail scene.
Packaged in a slender amber bottle wrapped in a crinkly paper label, the most popular brand among barkeeps is Angostura Aromatic Bitters. A whiff of the reddish-brown Angostura conjures hints of oak, red wine, orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom, and a hint of strong cold medicine. The label suggests using it in cocktails and soft drinks as well as with fruits, salads, pies, and soups. It's the Worcestershire sauce of booze.
Angostura bitters were first brewed in Venezuela in 1824 by a German physician named Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert. He and his company offered the concoction as a cure for sea sickness and stomach ailments and sold it mostly to sailors and travelers. It was exported to England and to Trinidad, where it came to be used in a number of cocktails, particularly apéritifs, digestifs, and cocktails made with gin. A dash of Angostura bitters imparts a pinkish color to a clear spirit, while it enhances the amber/copper hew of whiskies and dark rums.
The folks at the Gin Joint (182 East Bay St. Downtown. 843-577-6111) specialize in old-school cocktails, and its cocktail menu features several specialties made with bitters. "We have a huge variety of bitters, and they're hugely important for altering the flavor and aroma profile of a lot of our cocktails," says Joe Raya, owner of the elegant downtown bar. "Above all, we love Angostura bitters, of which we go through probably four 16-ounce large bottles a month."
The Gin Joint's Bourbon Renewal combines Four Roses Bourbon, lemon juice, Crème de Cassis, and Angostura bitters. The Trinidad Sour features Angostura with Rittenhouse Bonded Rye, Orgeat Almond, and lemon. The popular Winchester mixes Angostura with Hayman Old Tom gin, Tanqueray gin, lime, grapefruit, St. Germain Elderflower, and fresh ginger.
If Angostura is the mainstream brand of cocktail bitters, a few others stand out in the Charleston bar scene. The spicy-sweet, bright-red Peychaud's Bitters (circa 1793) is closely associated with the cuisine of New Orleans and Louisiana. Clove-accented with a hint of licorice, it's a vital ingredient in the traditional Sazerac, a New Orleans-style cocktail made with cognac, rye whiskey, absinthe, and lemon peel.
"We stock Angostura like everyone else and their grandmother, but we like to use Peychaud bitters mainly at the bars," says Patrick Emerson, wine and beverage director and advanced sommelier with Maverick Southern Kitchens (High Cotton, SNOB, Old Village Post House). "The flavors are a little more complex with qualities of nuts, vanilla, and anise, and also to add that pretty pink color. In the past, we have used rhubarb, mint, pomegranate, and orange bitters in cocktails. I like adding a drop to a cocktail because they can really enhance the breadth and depth of taste, adding a fuller dimension to the flavors."
Maverick Southern Kitchens features a rum-infused drink named the Hemingway Mojito at the Old Village Post House (101 Pitt St. Mt. Pleasant. 843-388-8935) the late author's favorite drink was a mojito made with white rum, mint, cane syrup, lemon, lime, Peychaud's bitters, and soda water. "It will transport you straight to a little fishing shack on a white beach in the Caribbean at four o'clock in the afternoon," says Emerson. "I understand that it works well as a tummy settler and helps to cure effects from the night before. That was something that Hemingway was known to need on occasion."
Jennifer Kulick, co-owner and managing partner of Voodoo Tiki Bar and Lounge (15 Magnolia Road. West Ashley. 843-769-0228), enjoys adding bitters to their tropical specialties. "We tend to focus on the coconut-y and fruity aspect of the spectrum with Angostura," she says.
Kulick has even attempted to make her own batch of bitters. "I once made bitters with barks, seeds, orange peel, and a bunch of other stuff," she says. "I used grain alcohol for the infusion to get the flavors to steep. Then I just mixed it into a Manhattan."
She's not alone. Some of the more adventurous bartenders around town have fun with creating housemade bitters. They start with a spirit base — usually high-proof grain alcohol, vodka, rum, or whiskey — and follow through with an infusion of herbs, spices, sugar, and roots, steeped for several weeks.
Palmer Quimby, the general manager at Chai's Lounge & Tapas (462 King St. Downtown. 843-722-7313), is a fan of Fee Brothers' Old Fashion and orange bitters. Fee Brothers produces several varieties of bitters, among other cocktail mixes. Their flavors range from the standard Old Fashion (which actually contains Angostura bark as one of its many ingredients) to orange, peach, mint, lemon, grapefruit, rhubarb, cherry, and oak whiskey barrel-aged bitters. Increasingly, their orange bitters make their way into local mixologists recipes.
"These products go well with so many things, especially bourbon," Quimby says. "One of my favorite things to throw a twist on is a Pimms Cup using orange bitters. It adds another layer of flavor." Quimby and chef Chris Stallard are even working on new housemade, all-natural popsicles made with bitters.
Adam Brunelle, the sommelier at Husk Restaurant (76 Queen St. Downtown. 843-577-2500), uses plenty of Angostura, too, but he likes to mix things up with a variety of flavors. "Bitters are an essential component to much of what we do with our cocktails at Husk," he says. "We do use a fair amount of Angostura bitters. However, our range includes blueberry, cucumber, lemon, lime, chocolate, tobacco, and one of our newest cocktails uses wormwood bitters. A classic cocktail that I've enjoyed spicing up with bitters is the Hemingway cocktail. When given a couple of dashes of lime or grapefruit bitters, it gains in depth and complexity." Brunelle and the Husk staff are currently working on creations of their own.
Jasmine Beck, the managing partner and featured "spiritist" at the newly opened Cocktail Club (479 King St. Downtown), is an avid champion of bitters. She and head mixologist Jon Calo conduct monthly mixology classes on Saturday afternoons. Recently, they hosted a class called "Bitters 101" in which they taught guests about using aromatic bitters in a variety of cocktails. The class showcased examples from the Cocktail Club's beverage menu, including a champagne cocktail (sparkling wine with three dashes of Angostura, sugar, and a lemon twist), a classic Sazerac (with Peychaud's and Angostura), and an Averell Gin Fizz (with plum gin, grape juice, lemon, and plum bitters from Fee Brothers).
"One of our most popular bourbon drinks, the Valiant Soldier, has blood orange bitters from Fee Brothers," says Beck. "The blood orange bitters is a lot less intense, meaning you can use more per cocktail. We use a fourth of an ounce in the Valiant Soldier. It's also used in our Ode to Hemingway, which was originally supposed to be used with fresh blood orange juice. I like our Averell Gin Fizz with plum bitters. It's intense. The Maple Meringue — made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, maple syrup, lemon juice, Old Fashion bitters, and egg whites — is a perfect cocktail for showcasing the flavor of bitters.
"The Bitter Truth is by far the best on the market, and also the most expensive," Beck adds. "They're alcohol-driven and not too sweet."
German company the Bitter Truth — created by Munich bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck — started producing New Orleans-style bitters in 2006. They make a range of bitters based on anise, fennel, celery, caraway, chocolate, grapefruit, and other ingredients. The grassy Celery Bitters and fruity/spicy Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters, based on a recipe by "Professor" Jerry Thomas, a pioneering 19th-century mixologist, are particularly popular in the U.S.
The role of bitters in cocktails is subtle but assertive. Charleston's top bartenders agree that different varieties — whether they're woody, spicy, herbaceous, or floral — suit different liquors. These beverage scientists constantly rework classic recipes and put new flavor combinations in front of their customers. Experimenting with bitters leads to delectable results.