Orange peel is bitter as well as fragrant, and there were several brands of orange bitters on the market through the 1950s before they died out. The style has recently been revived. Fee Bros. is the most widely available brand, found in many larger liquor stores (Fee's also makes three other bitters; see the box on Page 9). The Stirrings company of Nantucket, whose mixers are carried by Sur La Table, has just introduced a bitters made from blood oranges. Author-bartender Gary Regan makes Regan's Orange Bitters, which has a more aggressive flavor than the others, fuller, spicier and more bitter.
In the 19th century, orange bitters was the choice for gin or vermouth cocktails, while Angostura tended to go with whiskey or Champagne. A new generation of mixologists may or may not follow that tradition.
By comparison with this short list of aromatic bitters, there are literally scores of bitter liqueurs, ranging from mildly bitter vermouth and the familiar liqueurs Dubonnet and Campari to rarities such as Jeppson Malort and Zwack Unicum. Nearly every country in Europe has its own traditional bitter liqueurs. They all have their uses.
Grace's Doherty has created two cocktails that capitalize on bitters. The Luca Brasi is his version of the Americano -- Charbay blood orange vodka, Punt e Mes (a bittered vermouth) and soda. His latest is the Marco Polo: Bombay gin, ginger juice, Campari and soda.
"I started this one with just gin and the ginger juice but felt it was too sweet," says Doherty. "So I added Campari, and the drink changed completely. The bitter was just the thing to cut the sweetness, bring out the flavors of the gin and tame the fire of the ginger."
Some cocktails, such as sours and highballs, aren't improved by a bitter flavoring, the latter because they're intentionally light and simple, the former because -- the virgin mojito notwithstanding -- sourness and bitterness rarely go well together. In others, though, people instinctively add a bitter flavor, whether or not they actually reach for a bitters bottle.
Take the martini. Originally it consisted of gin, vermouth and orange bitters, but the bitters dropped out of the formula early in the 20th century. What saved the martini from blandness (especially as people started using less and less vermouth) was a bitter garnish, either an olive or a twist of lemon peel. And eventually we got the dirty martini, flavored with olive brine -- which is, in effect, a salty bitters for a post-margarita generation.
If aromatic bitters are basically a flavoring, why not use them in food? People do.
The label of the Angostura bottle has always suggested adding a dash to stews, sauces and salad dressings. Six years ago, Trinidad food writer Wendy Rahamut published a cookbook ("The Taste That Changed the World") in which she threw Angostura into just about anything you can imagine -- coleslaw, pea soup, pot roast, lasagna -- producing a pleasant, mysterious effect, like the indefinable sparkle a dish gets from a dash of Worcestershire.
Some people even put a little on their vanilla ice cream. Once you start down the bitters trail, you can feel like slapping every simple-minded sweet taste on Earth with a jolt of grown-up complexity and sophistication.
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Bitters: Classic to contemporary
Angostura. Developed in Venezuela by a German doctor, it's the long-standing favorite; sweet spice (mostly clove) aroma with a winy character.
Fee Bros. Based in Rochester, N.Y., this company makes several rather mild bitters including Old Fashion Bitters, clove and citrus note but not much bitterness; Orange Bitters, like a spiced triple sec with bitter orange peel; Mint Bitters, peppermint with an edge; Peach Bitters, aroma of peaches and bitter almonds.
Peychaud's. Made by the Sazerac Co. of New Orleans with a complex aroma suggesting anise with a hint of root beer.
Regan's. Gary Regan, author of "The Joy of Mixology," makes a spicy, peppery Orange Bitters, aggressively flavored with gentian and quinine. At www.buffalotrace.com.
Bitter aperitifs and liqueurs
Agwa. A Bolivian liqueur with an attractive bitterness and a slight stimulative effect -- contains ginseng, guarana and (nonnarcotic) coca leaf.
Amaro Felsina Ramazzotti. A vermouth with bitter orange flavors.
Campari. A bitter vermouth with a cherry-like aroma.
Cynar. A sweet vermouth bittered with artichoke.
Dubonnet. A vermouth flavored with quinine, herbs and spices.
Fernet Branca. Numerous herbs, including peppermint; from a Milan producer.
Jagermeister. Complex herbal flavor; from Germany.
Punt e Mes. A bitter vermouth.
Suze. The French aperitif; flavors of gentian, orange and vanilla.
Torani Amer. A sweet vermouth with orange, gentian and quinine flavors, somewhat reminiscent of Amer Picon, a traditional Basque vermouth not available in this country.
-- Charles Perry
Total time: 2 minutes
3/4 to 1 teaspoon Angostura
1 cube sugar
5 ounces chilled sparkling wine
Twist of lemon peel