Here's a quick test to see how much you really know about cocktails, and how prepared you are to make them.
To begin with, if your "liquor cabinet" doesn't include Angostura Bitters, you might as well just call it quits right there. If you're still with us, has it even been opened? Can you name at least three cocktails that use it? And has a final test, have you ever tasted it "straight"?
Assuming you've gotten this far unscathed, exactly what are bitters?
BITTERS - Beverages containing alcohol, together with a component for cathartic effect. Best known varieties: Angostura, made from the bark of a South American tree; Calisaya, synonymous with cinchona or quinine, also of South American origin; Orange; Boonekamp, made in Germany; Boker's, Amer Picon (which a stenographer rendered for me "American Pecan"); Hostetter's, West Indies, Pepsin, Peychaud (formerly made in New Orleans); Fernet Branca, etc. So named from the usual bitter taste.
From: The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book; by Albert Stevens Crockett, 1935.
Unfortunately, Mr. Crockett has part of his story wrong. While there is a tree called the Angostura tree, this isn't where Angostura bitters gets its name. According to the manufacturer, this popular bitter doesn't, and has never, included Angostura bark. The name derives from the name of the city in which it was developed, Angostura Venezuela, now known as Ciudad Bolivar.
The use of bitters today in cocktails is significantly different from what it was in the early days of mixology. In the modern cocktail, bitters are seldom called for, and when they are, it can almost always be assumed to be Angostura Bitters. Compare this to the 1800's, when by its very definition a cocktail always included some type of bitters. John Bartlett, in his "Dictionary of Americanisms" (1848), presented the following definition:
"Cocktail - a stimulating beverage, made of brandy, gin or other liquor, mixed with bitters, sugar and very little water".
Starting in the early 1800's, bitters flourished under the guise of being a medicinal elixir, the fact that they usually consisted of a fairly high alcohol content did not appear to hurt their popularity in the slightest. Bartenders soon began using several of these bitters to add a distinctive character to the beverages they made. Some of the more exuberant bartenders even took to making up their own private recipes.
Looking through any pre-prohibition cocktail manual will quickly illustrate the popularity of bitters in cocktail recipes. In my copy of "The Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book", Albert Crocket states:
"…Bitters of one kind or another was considered a necessary ingredient of most Gin cocktails. The favorite was Orange Bitters, which appears in something like one hundred different recipes."
According to Harry Cradock, in the 1933 edition of his Savoy Cocktail Book, the Lone Tree cocktail was developed at the turn of the century specifically to prove that a bitterless cocktail was possible. The recipe provided (which differs from the previous edition of this book) is:
Lone Tree Cocktail 1/4 Italian Vermouth 3/4 Gin Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.
In 1906 the Pure Food & Drug Act came into effect, and products that wanted to make any health benefit claims now were expected to provide some sort of proof to back up these claims. This quickly trimmed down the number of bitters being produced, and while prohibition provided some returned visibility to medicinal alcohol, it wasn't enough to breathe life back into this product. Cocktail bitters continued to be developed after prohibition, but the focus on these was slowing fading away.
These days, the use of bitters has all but disappeared from the bartender's palette. Angostura is the only bitter that can be considered commonly available. Peychaud, the defining ingredient for the Sazerac cocktail, can still be found in and around New Orleans where it is made, but often difficult to acquire elsewhere. Orange Bitters, a key ingredient of the original Martini, and commonly used in many other pre-prohibition cocktails, is rarely even known to the modern bartender. Both it, and the even lesser known Peach Bitters can be ordered through Fee Brothers (1-800-961-FEES).
Amer Picon, Fernet Branca, Underberg, and supposedly Boonekamp, are all bitters that can still be found by those willing to look hard enough, but this is all that is left of the once great collection of Cocktail Bitters.