I have to confess that when I first became interested in making cocktails at home, I really had no idea what bitters actually were. I remember thinking that the bottles were very cool, and using them made me feel like some sort of an old-time chemist or pharmacist mixing potions. Or better still, an apothecary, like the one in Romeo and Juliet. For the most part, I viewed bitters as just another ingredient in the drink’s recipe. If I wanted to make an Old-Fashioned then I needed 2 dashes of Aromatic bitters, so I made sure that I had a bottle on hand. It wasn’t until I began to entertain the idea of creating my own cocktails that I wanted to understand more about what their exact role really was.
Most bitters are created by using alcohol to extract flavors from a blend of spices, herbs, and other aromatic botanicals that were originally developed for medicinal purposes. Two of the original brands, Peychaud’s and Angostura, claimed to fight every manner of digestive ailments from something as mild as an upset stomach to something as serious as dysentery. By the mid-nineteenth century, they found their way into bars and began appearing in mixed drinks, still claiming medicinal value. So your Old-Fashioned would not only taste good, it would cure whatever ailed you in more ways than one! In more recent years the production of bitters has skyrocketed in direct proportion to the revival of craft cocktail bars, where it is not uncommon for there to be dozens of different bottles on hand.
Death & Co. in New York classifies bitters into two categories, a distinction that has really helped me to gain an understanding of their function. In the first category are the lifting bitters, which usually have a simple taste profile of 1 or 2 ingredients, and whose role is to enhance and “brighten” other similar flavors in a drink. Binding bitters, on the other hand, are more complex and help to bring together different elements into a more harmonious whole, bringing balance to cocktails. Orange bitters fall into both categories and this prompted me to make the Elder Fashion from the Death & Co. book because it contains only 3 ingredients: Plymouth gin, St. Germain, and orange bitters.
I made the drink without the bitters at first and I found that I had trouble tasting the St. Germain. The gin seemed overwhelming both in flavor and in alcohol content, which was odd since Plymouth is so mild in taste and has a lower ABV than most other gins. When I added in the bitters, the difference was profound. The first thing I noticed was that the taste of the St. Germain moved forward and became more prominent. The Plymouth seemed softer in flavor and in alcohol content, and the texture of cocktail was much smoother. There was an overall sense of harmony; this was suddenly a totally different drink! What amazed me the most was that I tasted only a hint of orange. It had more to do with how the bitters’ flavor enhanced the floral notes of the St. Germain and the citrus notes of the gin, and made the cocktail feel more balanced. This was the perfect way to really understand the impact that the bitters had on the drink and I would encourage you to try it this same way at home.
Elder Fashion (from Phil Ward, Death & Co. NYC)
2 oz Plymouth Gin
½ oz St. Germain
2 dashes orange bitters*
1 grapefruit twist for garnishing
Place all the ingredients in a mixing glass and fill 2/3 full with ice. Stir 30-45 seconds with a long-handled barspoon. Strain using a julep strainer into an Old-Fashioned glass over 1 large cube. Garnish with the grapefruit twist. Enjoy!
*Death & Co. uses equal parts of Fee Brothers West Indian Orange, Regan’s Orange, and Angostura Orange for their house orange bitters. I used the Fee Brothers because it was what I had on hand, but I’m intrigued by this combination and I will definitely be trying it in the near future!