This week we turn our attention to the shelf on the bar where we keep the weird and wonderful collection of small bottles that occupy what we think of as the spice rack of our bar. The big bottles almost always get the spotlight. Not this week. For the next few days, the bitters bottles take front and center. Our guide on this tour of the bitters shelf is Mark Bitterman’s (apparently that’s his given name) Field Guide to Bitters and Amari. As we always say when we do one of these book reviews, we hope that our little taste compels you to read the whole thing for yourself; it’s a particularly helpful guide if you want to make you own bitters, or have a bitters by bitters guide of what the difference is among all those little bottles you can buy. For a general introduction to bitters and this week focused on them, take a look at Monday’s post.
There are hundreds of bitters nowadays, but if you run across a recipe that says, ‘A dash of bitters,’ it probably means Angostura bitters. It was long the dominant bitters, and for a while practically the only bottle of bitters you might find in your local liquor store. Luckily, belying its attachment to ill-fitting labels, it’s also maintained a consistently high quality over its long and illustrious life.
Angostura began life in 1824 as a cure for stomach maladies for Simon Bolivar’s soldiers in the war for Venezuelan independence. Angostura emerged dominant from the 19th century by a two-handed approach, maintaining a high quality while also vigorously defending its patent rights in US courts (Bitterman 4). It was one of the few alcohol manufacturers to survive and continue to work through Prohibition, by successfully claiming that it was simply too bitter to drink on its own. Thus, it came into the latter half of the 20th century virtually unrivaled. Again, we’re lucky that it’s also unrivaled in its complex, bitter deliciousness. Like Chartreuse, only a handful of people know at any given time its sophisticated, 40+ ingredient recipe.
So, you can buy your bottle of Angostura bitters knowing that it’s a champion on all fronts, unparalleled in its history, its legal savvy, its recipe, and its protection thereof.
Michael Collins Cocktail Recipe
Like all of our recipes this week, this comes from Bitterman’s variations on the classic. In this case, it’s a classic we’ve avoided until now. We’re strangers to the original, but Bitterman’s bitter-heavy version was a delight. As an extra bonus, it added another recipe to our beer cocktail repertoire.
- 2 oz Irish whiskey
- 3/4 oz orange juice
- 5 dashes aromatic bitters–i.e. Angostura
- Lager beer, to top
- orange twist, for garnish
- In a Collins glass (if you have one, if not a large rocks glass will do), combine whiskey, bitters, and orange juice.
- Stir gently to mix.
- Add ice over the level of the liquid.
- Top with enough beer to make it fizz.