From appetite stimulant to stomach soother, bitters cure what ails you
On a family trip to Italy last year, my old dad, bless him, was crippled daily by excruciating tummy aches. (Not the most appetizing way to start a column usually devoted to the glamour of guzzling, but bear with me.) After one too many emergency pit stops — much to the annoyance of one too many caffè waiters — I urged him, for all our sakes, to try a digestivo after dinner. That evening he had his first glass of bitters — and from the next morning on, his belly saw nothing but blue skies. He started swearing by the stuff nightly, fearing piles of pasta no longer.
No wonder amari, as the Italians call bitters, are nearly as much a part of the Italian diet as espresso and wine, be they aperitivos — drunk before a meal to stimulate the appetite — or the aforementioned digestivos, drunk afterward to settle the stomach. But here in the US — where they were once marketed as patent medicines — bitters function primarily as mixers, thanks to their distinctive little kick. Still, they all answer to the same basic description: they are spirits either distilled from or infused with botanicals, from orange peel to gentian root to cinchona bark (the source of quinine). And for all their various purposes, they really work.
That said, don’t go gulping down the entire contents of the little bottles you see behind any given bar; those are aromatic bitters, best reserved for mixing. Take the near-ubiquitous Angostura brand: invented in Venezuela and now produced in Trinidad — where it’s also a common cooking ingredient — it’s your go-to for old-fashioned cocktails like, well, the Old Fashioned, a favorite with Caffè Umbra (1395 Washington Street, Boston, 617.867.0707) bartender David Williams. “It was the first drink I ever made when I was about 12 years old, because it was my mother’s favorite drink. So it’s a near-and-dear drink. But no one orders them anymore, really.” We say be the first kid on your block to bring it back. When you order an Old Fashioned from Williams, he’ll “use turbinado sugar, a splash of bitters, a cherry, and a slice of orange; muddle it all in the bottom of the glass until it’s good and mushy; pack the glass with ice and pour [Canadian Club] whiskey on top” for $8.50. The mere description, he admits to us Boozers, “sounds good right now. You’re making me want one.”
While Angostura or the New York–based Fee Brothers brand covers most of a bartender’s bases, another legendary label, Peychaud’s, is synonymous with a single cocktail: the Sazerac. Though both were concocted in the 19th century by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Peychaud, only the bitters themselves were named after him. The drink derives its name from the coffeehouse that popularized it, which was in turn named for the cognac initially used in the drink — now replaced by whiskey. (If you think that’s confusing, be thankful that we spared you a discussion of angostura bark, a common ingredient in bitters — but not in Angostura itself, which was instead named for its hometown.) At No. 9 Park (9 Park Street, Boston, 617.742.9991) — where it’s one of many signatures — the Sazerac ($10) is something bar manager John Gertsen feels strongly about: “I don’t like mixing Peychaud’s and Angostura [as some do]. I feel like the Sazerac is one of the few drinks that really shows what Peychaud’s is all about, so why muddle it? It usually leads to great conversation when people see us at the bar muddling the sugar cube and adding the bitters. People wonder what the heck’s going on. So while we’re making the drink we take the time to describe its history.”
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