Imagine a product that is at least 45 percent alcohol, higher than any beer, wine or whiskey, and yet is not classified alcoholic, so it can be sold to youth and to those whose lips never touch alcohol. The irony is so heavy you can cut it with a knife.
Dropping back just a bit, the proper definition of a cocktail, which goes back to the early 1800’s in England and is still in place today, is a mixture of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters. The first three ingredients are self-evident, even the water part can be the addition of frozen water, translation: ice. But what the hell are bitters and what are they doing in every cocktail?
Bitters were created in ancient Egypt as patent medicine, “snake oil,” if you will. This healthcare item was actually a bit of an herb but a lot of alcohol, 45 percent or more in many cases. Something with 45 percent alcohol is definitely going to make you feel better, at least for a little while. But these elixirs were never meant to be taken in large quantities. Doses are measured in drops, not teaspoons, Bitters were mixed with other potions to cure stomach distress, headaches, intestinal tract discomfort, and the like.
It was the early Americans, particularly New Orleanians, who put bitters on the map, so to speak, and firmly into the hands of healthcare professionals, including the first licensed pharmacists in America, here on Royal Street. Each pharmacy developed their own secret recipes for their proprietary bitters, which gave the suffering consumer a reason to choose this pharmacy over that pharmacy down the street.
In successful attempts to spread the use of their formulas, these pharmacists, both in Europe and America, developed never-before-dared applications and bitters became one of the defining ingredients in the new breed of social drink, the cocktail. The term “cocktail” was first used in England around 1805, not New Orleans, as some locals still mistakenly believe. The origin of the word is as applied to a mixed drink is still being debated.
The confusion regarding cocktail’s origin is understandable. The first cocktail that was named is the Sazerac, developed in New Orleans around 1850. The name was taken from the name of the drink’s main ingredient, a cognac, Sazerac de Forge et Fils. The cognac is no longer in existence thanks to a vine disease epidemic in the late 1800’s, phylloxera, and the Sazerac cocktail morphed from cognac-based to rye whisky-based, since that is the spirit which was available in New Orleans in seemingly unending quantities from Kentucky. Why take a chance on another ingredient deficit due to matters out of our control in a far away place, and why not use something that continuously was coming to our front door thanks to the Mississippi River?
Back to the bitters question. Today’s bitters are still top secret in how they are made, with the larger providers, Angostura and Peychaud, having less than half-a-dozen trusted employees with knowledge of the blend.
Angostura is named for a town in Venezuela, now called Ciudad Bolivar, and the product was originally created for sailors to relieve stomach distress and the uncomfortable effects of seasickness on long voyages at sea. The same storyline is given to Peychaud’s product. Antoine Peychaud was a noted pharmacist in the French Quarter. Both men and their creations were very popular in their respective locales in the early and middle part of the 19th century. At 45 percent alcohol, the only surprise would be if they were not overwhelmed by demand for the “medicine.”
As we move into the 20th century with the alcohol prohibition movement, bitters took on an air of respectability and, more importantly, availability. At the end of Prohibition, no one questioned whether bitters should still be a part of the definition of a cocktail. Quite the opposite, bitters’ role became broader, more diverse and indispensable.
The new era of bitters after the repeal of Prohibition comprised products whose main ingredients included oranges from Seville; spices from the Far East; herbs from the Caribbean and Africa; biological materials from all parts of Europe, Greece, Central and South America, even North America.
The sketchy, yet historic designation of bitters as a liquor, or not, continues to this day as bitters are sold in many locales that do not allow alcohol to be sold or consumed. Bitters are designated in these areas as an “alcoholic non-beverage” product.
In the modern era (now), everyone, it seems, wants in on the party. The bitters shelf at the retailer has become the bitters section. Choose bitters wisely and use sparingly. Just a few drops and the entire cocktail has changed.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine.