I've mentioned various bitters in my cocktail posts, but I'm finally getting around to writing about my treasured bitters from the good people at Fee Brothers of Rochester, NY, who use old family recipes going back to 1864.
Previously I've written about Angostura and Peychaud's, two of the more well-known bitters out there. Angostura can be found at grocery stores and liquor stores around the country, and I love it enough to use it in marinades. Peychaud's is perfect for New Orleans cocktails but tastes like cherry cough syrup elsewhere. My advice: use Angostura freely and wherever possible (I even cook with it sometimes), but save the Fee Brothers for when you're trying to achieve a specific flavor profile or enhance an existing component of the drink.
What are bitters? Well, they don't make your drink bitter. Think of it like salt or hot sauce in your food; it's tiny bit of a powerful ingredient that can make the whole meal sing in your mouth. Same thing with cocktails: a touch of bitters can brighten up an otherwise dull concoction. And I must stress, we're only talking about drops here, not a pint of fluorescent green margarita mix.
Often bitters are complicated mixes of lots of herbs, spices, fruits, and/or vegetables along with a strong dose of alcohol and a little glycerine. Think old patent medicines and you're on the right track. Indeed, Angostura continues to list various medical benefits on its oddly-sized label. Bitters have been a lesser-known curiosity for the past several decades, but the whole mixology craze is bringing them back. What a great time to be into cocktails!
The eight bitters in this set are Old Fashion, Lemon, Grapefruit, Rhubarb, Peach, Cherry, West Indian Orange, and Mint. Much pleasure can be had simply from sniffing these from time to time. The Old Fashion is closest to the standard Angostura and has a root beer flavor that lends well to drinks like the Manhattan. Lemon, Grapefruit, and Orange get used for any sort of citrus cocktail, and the others have their proper times and places. Rhubarb, my Ace of Spades, is reserved for those occasions when I need to assert hipster cocktail domination over all others.
The cherry bitters are nearly clear, not red, and have an aroma that will forever pull you away from Maraschino cherries and back to the hand-picked Bings or Raniers of an Oregon summer. And the peach bitters will make you wonder why the Beach Boys neglected to specify the fair maidens of Georgia in "California Girls". I haven't really used mint yet, but I'm thinking Mint Juleps and some novel concoctions around Christmas.
As always, you can purchase the set of 8 Fee Brothers Bitters from my Amazon Store. You're not going to find these in retail shops, and frankly the eight bottles will last for a lifetime of the casual cocktail enthusiast. Also, since bitters are treated more as a flavoring or extract (like vanilla), there are no prohibitions on shipping throughout the US.
Beer at 3-5% alcohol gets certain restrictions... wine at 10-15% gets even more... liquor at 40% gets into really complicated federal regulations. But bitters, at 45% alcohol, have zero restrictions and you don't even have to be 21 to order them. In the words of Russian philosopher Yakov Smirnoff, "What a country!"