I’m not sure what prompted me to make my own batch of orange bitters, it may have been my success at my last batch of liqueurs or the news of the 2009 Angostura bitter shortage – gasp. My midwestern instincts to stockpile kicked in on the news, and I has seen a few recipes for orange bitters and I was intrigued. Here’s the recipe I used (obtained from the Chow website), along with a few comments about the making of this batch of bitters:
1. I was unimpressed with the dried orange peel I found so I made my own, dutifully collecting the peels from the oranges we used in our smoothies and scraped out the pith. I set them out for a days (make sure they are in a single lay or they will get moldy) and then stuck them in the freezer until I accumulated the necessary amount.
2. One ingredient I had to hunt for was the gentian extract. Its not that easy to acquire, I had almost given up hope and then randomly stumbled across it.
3. I cannot compare the dried version of the orange peels to my version, but I can tell you that my version had a wonderful fresh orange scent as the peel still retained a lot of the oil. I suspect the dried version would not be as aromatic. When I make another batch, I am definitely going to make my own peels.
4. I let my batch sit longer than the recommended 14 days, more like 25 days, again I cannot make any comparisons but just noted that you did not have to be a stickler on how long you keep the ingredients steeping.
A bitter is an alcoholic beverage made from an infusion of herbs, seeds, fruit peel, roods, spices and bark, and typically do not have added sugar (if it is classified as a tonic it may have some sugar) so they can run the gamut in terms of bitterness with those with sugar being on the sweet side. One common denominator is that most bitters have a citrus component, and are typically high in alcoholic content, around 45%. The bitter flavor is often owed to the addition of quinine bark, or in the case of my version, gentian extract. Bitters, like a lot of food we hold dear (chocolate), started out life in the Western world considered more medicine than food.
Originally, bitters were thought to aid digestion, and many Europeans still feel that they do. In the United States, because they were sold as a medicine avoided an alcohol tax being applied to them. In the early 1900s, the American Food and Drug Admistration disallowed medical claims for bitters, based on the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act, essentially stating that it had to be proven. As a result, bitters prices rose with the addition of taxes and sales plummeted, and have only really started to increase as interest in classic cocktails developed.
Consuming bitters is definitely not for everyone, and is indeed an acquired taste, in part because appreciating the taste for bitterness is not often developed. The tongue has four sections of taste, and the part that senses bitterness is at the back of the tongue. The sweet sensors are at the front, and probably the reason why sweet foods are preferred. Some people assume that enjoying bitter tastes is a sign of a fully developed palate, somewhat similar to the preference of red wines over white means a more mature palate.
Bitters can be divided into two categories:
- Drinking or cocktail bitters are used as apéritifs, or mixed with other beverages – think Campari
- Concentrated bitters are meant added only by the drop as flavoring – think Angostura
Another distinction with bitters is when it is consumed relative to a meal. Most bitters are intended to be consumed after the meal to aid in the digestion of the food. These drinks are called “digestifs“. If they are consumed prior to the meal, with the intent to stimulate the appetite, they are call “apértifs“, though there are exceptions, some examples are Campari, Cynar, and French Dubonnet.
Some bitters – a partial list
Wikipedia provided basis for list – I culled some of the list finding a few no longer being made and also discovered a few new ones.
Appenzeller Alpenbitter (Switzerland)
Amargo Chuncho (Peru) – is a key ingredient for Pisco Sours and is about 40% alcohol. Angostura bitters are the obvious substitute.
Amaro Lucano (Italy) Wikipedia describes the taste as similar to Unicom but with less alcohol – 30% as opposed to 40%. The name “Lucan” comes from the Roman word for Bascilicata, the region where this liqueur is produced.
Amer Picon (France) – A part of Picon Punch, considered a great example of a highball beverage. Originally, an eye watering 78% proof, it has over the years seen a reduction in the alcohol content.
Angostura bitters (originally from Venezuela, currently from Trinidad and Tobago) The name comes from the town of Angostura in Venezuela and not the tree. It is used in a variety of drinks from Pisco Sours to Dry Martinis
Aperol (Italy) – a lower alcohol orange liqueur (only 11%). Its now part of the Campari brand. The taste is bitter sweet, but less bitter than Campari.
Averna (from Italy)
Becherovka (Czech Republic) – a herbal liqueur flavored with anise seeds, cinnamon and over 32 other herbs.
Beerenburg (the Netherlands)
Calisaya bitters (Italy) This is a type of bitter, not a brand made with Calisaya bark, also known as cinchona or quinine.
Cappellano Chinato (Italy)
Campari (Italy) – developed in 1860 from a variety of bitter herbs and spices. One of the most popular bitters available, and one of the few non dark brown Italian bitters.
Carpano Antica (Italy)
Cocchi Chinato (Italy) This special wine produced with DOCG Barolo, is flavored with quinine bark, rhubarb and gentian, along with a final addition of spices, including cardamom seeds.
Collins Orange (US)
Cynar (Italy) – I love this one, its a moderately alcoholic artichoke based bitter.
Demänovka (Slovak Republic)
Dimitri (Costa Rica)
Fee Brothers bitters (US) made from a range of flavors: orange, mint, lemon and peach in Rochester, New York
Fernet Branca (Italy) This bitter is made with chamomile
Fernet Stock (Czech Republic) – apparently “real men and extraordinary women” drink this bitter. This bitter has sugar added to it.
Fernet 1882 (Argentina)
Gammel Dansk (Denmark) This mixture was created in 1964 and contains Angelica, rowan berries, star anise, nutmeg, ginger, laurel, gentian, seville orange and cinnamon.
Hoppe Orange (Holland)
Jägermeister (Germany) – a herbal liqueur well known on many college campuses.
Lauterbacher Tropfen (Germany)
Meletti (Italy) has a floral, violet and saffron hints.
Nardini (Italy) This bitters includes bitter orange, peppermint and gentian.
Nonino (Italy) – Made from an aqua vitae base of Ribolla, Traminer and Verduzzo grapes, and aged over 5 years in French oak with an infusion of wild herbs.
Par-D-Schatz (from Germany)
Peychaud’s Bitters (United States) Peychaud’s bitters is associated with New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Sazerac cocktail. It is a gentian-based bitters, with a subtly different and fruitier taste than the Angostura brand. It is also aromatic, with a hint of cloves and other spices.
Pimm’s No. 1 (UK) – a gin based liquor, first made in 1859 with various fruit juices and spices.
Ramazzotti (Italy) has hints of orange peel and anise.
Ratzeputz (Germany) This bitter has a very high alcohol component (58%), is gingery with a black pepper finish.
Riemerschmid Angostura (Germany)
Riga Black Balsam (Latvia) Riga Black Balsam with its 24 ingredients, hints of linden blossom, birch bud, valerian root, raspberry, bilberry, ginger with touches of nutmeg and black peppercorn. Legend has it that Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, having fallen ill during a visit to Latvia, was cured by this drink.
Santa Maria al Monte Amaro (Italy)
Schrobbeler (Southern Netherlands )
St. Vitus (Germany)
Suze (France) This bitter was developed in 1889 and has a relatively moderate alcohol level of 11%. Genitan root is added for the bitterness factor.
Underberg (Germany) – found in about every duty free shop the world over.
Unicum (Hungary) is a powerfully strong liqueur, found in a bottle, that someone described as “shaped like an old fashioned bomb” – should be a hint of its potency.
Urban Moonshine (US) Made from citrus and maple
Versinthe La Blanche (an absinthe bitters from France) a bitter, you guessed it, made with absinthe, and the taste reflects this fact.
Weisflog Bitter (Switzerland)
Zucca (Italy) This bitter is made with rhubarb.
In general, bitters can be found from a variety of fruit: peach, orange, rhubarb, maraschino cherry. The sky’s the limit, and the diversity is amazing. If you have not picked up on it yet – Italians do more bitters than about any other country, and take their bitters seriously. Case in point, when your coffee has bitters added to it, its called a “Caffè Corretto” - Corrected Coffee. I enjoy incorporating my bitters into my menu. If you thought bitters were only for drinking, you’re missing out, they make a great addition to cooking; adding complexity to soups, sorbets, and a host of other dishes.