As recently as a decade ago, cocktail aficionados keen on mixing a historically accurate Martinez or Brandy Crusta would have been out of luck. Codified in Jerry Thomas's seminal 1862 book, How to Mix Drinks, the venerable potations contained dashes of Boker's Bitters, an alcohol-based infusion of herbs, spices and barks.
The brand, created in 1828, had faded from history, felled by the axe of Prohibition. But almost a century after its demise, Boker's is back, exhumed by a Scottish company that recreated the tonic using an old recipe. Produced by Aberdeen-based Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters, it's a shining example of the recent boom in over-the-counter bitters, flavourings once considered essential to a well-stocked bar.
At BYOB Cocktail Emporium, an accessories store in Toronto, one can find more than 75 flavours on offer, including leathery Boker's, spicy Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub, Fee Brothers West Indian Orange, The Bitter Truth Original Celery and Bittered Sling Grapefruit & Hops. The tiny bottles, some available for sampling, sit on a wooden shelving unit like a tableau from a 19th-century apothecary, an homage to the products' provenance as remedies for everything from colds to flatulence.
"New brands keep coming up every day," Kristen Voisey, the shop's owner, told me last week. "[A producer] just e-mailed me today about one and I'd never heard of it."
Not long ago, the category in Canada was synonymous with one brand, Angostura, typically found near the vanilla extract in the supermarket baking aisle. With its iconic oversized label and yellow cap, it is the king of bittersville, the defining bass note of a proper Manhattan, Champagne Cocktail and many other classics.
Born in Venezuela in the 1820s and later transplanted to Trinidad, Angostura escaped the fate of hundreds of others that either ran afoul of health-claims laws or dried up in the boozepocalypse of the 1920s. The other famous survivor is Peychaud's, an anise-scented gem considered de rigueur for New Orleans's signature Sazerac, based on rye, simple syrup and absinthe.
Though commonly defined as "non-potable" flavouring agents, cocktail bitters usually contain 40 to 55 per cent alcohol. That solvent is handy for drawing out and preserving aromatic essences of roots, barks, spices, herbs, flowers and fruit peels. Thirsty Prohibition-era Americans would sometimes feign ill health and chug the bracing tonics straight. An inevitable crackdown ensued.
In the wake of the repeal of Prohibition, bitters languished as mixology descended into the vodka-highball and blender-drink Dark Ages. Then came today's exacting young barkeeps, who began crafting house-made extracts to recapture the Golden Age. Frankly, I can't be bothered to make my own. It's a hit-or-miss proposition that involves steeping ingredients such as gentian and cassia bark for weeks in more Mason jars than my Italian mother used for tomato sauce. Thankfully, I no longer need to.
Inspired by the bar scene, crafty entrepreneurs have answered our prayers with ready-made potions. The offerings aren't cheap, ranging from $10 to $30 for a 120-millilitre bottle. But there are about 130 dashes inside, and one shake can bring vital verve and aromatic complexity to a drink.
"If a cocktail doesn't balance, if you can't figure it out, you put a dash of one of these in and it solves the problem," says Lauren Mote, co-owner of Kale & Nori Culinary Arts, a Vancouver catering company that makes the excellent Bittered Sling line. She is specifically referring to Moondog, a smoky-peppery delight, and Denman, an Asian-spice extract named after a Vancouver street famous for its multicultural restaurant scene.
As with Boker's, Peychaud's, Bittermens and many other products, Bittered Sling can be found at select gourmet food and private liquor stores around the country, through BYOB (www.byobto.com) and The Crafty Bartender (www.thecraftybartender.com) as well as from a variety of online retailers.
Craft distillers have also entered the fray, including Victoria Spirits in British Columbia, with a line called Twisted & Bitter, and 66 Gilead Distillery of Prince Edward County in Ontario, with products that include a ginger flavour as well as cranberry-sumac. Among my favourites is Bittermens Xocolatl Mole, infused with cacao, cinnamon and other spices and produced in Brooklyn, N.Y. Two dashes can turn a shot of aged tequila into a no-fuss multilayered cocktail, filling out the body while giving a chocolate hug to the spirit's spicy-vegetal essence.
Yes, you can get by with that bottle of Angostura, but it would be a sad victory for Prohibition if you did. "It's not a fad for me," says Brad Thomas Parsons, the Brooklyn-based author of the lively and fascinating 2011 book Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All. "Bitters happen to be trendy right now, but they're part of a great drink."
A compendium of lore, cocktail recipes and new-brand profiles, Parsons's book rightly dismisses the popular misconception that bitters always impart bitterness to a drink. The term is just a technical descriptor for liquid cocktail seasonings, some of which come across as sweetly floral and fruity and not at all acrid.
He says a proper bar should be anchored with Angostura, Peychaud's and at least one orange bitters. "From there, it's what you drink and what would you use them for," he says. Citrus or celery flavours work nicely with gin, for example, while a brown-spirits lover might prefer something more robust and aromatic, such as Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters.
Like me, Parsons is fond of shaking four to six dashes into a glass of club soda when something stiffer isn't suitable. "That's one of my go-to drinks if I'm at a work party and don't want to drink," he says. "It's an appetite stimulant and a digestif too. I feel like a million bucks."
How's that for a cure-all – or an ironic Temperance cocktail?