Not that long ago, I knew nothing about bitters aside from having seen yellow-capped bottles of Angostura from time to time and hearing something about it on Lynn Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table in the late 90s. Now I get obscure bitters delivered right to my front door.
Ellen Fee and the other folks at Fee Brothers have been good to me over the years, allowing me to try some special bitters after I fell in love with their collection. The grapefruit bitters are getting low, while the rhubarb bottle is still pretty full. But I love breaking them out for friends and family to sniff or sample in a cocktail.
You probably won't get to try this latest concoction, as only four barrels were made. Why such a small batch? Well, it's a test idea that Ellen had, and the recipe requires aging in barrels that previously held Old Tom Gin. Gin is not typically aged in wood but in skilled hands it can produce a fascinating liquor. Old Tom Gin is a lightly sweetened style that was popular in England in the 1700s and is mostly a curiosity these days.
Fee Bros. Gin Barrel-Aged Orange Bitters
Rochester, New York
It includes gentian and "oil of bitter orange terpeneless", which means that a certain class of organic compounds produced by certain plants (it's where we get the word turpentine) have been removed. but let's get away from chemistry (which plays a very important role in bitters production) and move on to aroma. Most orange bitters have a pretty bright and citric character, along with whatever herbs and spices were included to enhance the flavor. This is different, and the best way I could describe it is by eating orange-scented cookies around Christmas. It's a mellower, cooked orange aroma, with dark spices and juniper and all of the interesting elements leached from whatever gin was used to produce this. Slight caramelized aroma, and you'll be reminded of herbal tea.
I tried it with the pretty basic New Amsterdam gin, which is the house gin of Casa de Benito and one that is smooth but not heavily flavored in any particular direction. When combined with the Old Tom bitters, it was suddenly a much better gin. I will experiment with cocktails further, but the idea of a "gin booster" is a fascinating one and I'd like to surprise a few friends with a blind tasting.
Note: This bottle was received as a sample.