When it comes down to it, details matter. Remembering to mail the phone bill does no good without signing the check. Loaning the video camera to a friend always seems like a great idea until you realize you forgot to wipe a few incriminating scenes from the last Vegas trip off the flash memory. Little things truly can make or break you. The same holds true with cocktails - which is why bitters are so important.
Originally sold as medicines with questionable effects, bitters were the snake oil every huckster sold off of the back of a wagon to a public beset with assorted aches, stomach pains, baldness and bad breath. They were eventually tagged as digestifs, as upset stomachs were one of the few things bitters could actually cure, though whether it was a true medicinal effect or simply a buzz that made it easy to ignore minor nausea, the world may never know. Bitters are now used as the final touch in cocktails - a last dash of flavor to enhance the primary ingredients in a drink, and meld the tastes together.
Bitters, despite their complex flavors, are actually fairly simple: a form of alcohol, usually 90 proof, infused with herbs and aromatics like citrus oils, quinine, angostura bark, cassia, or any of a thousand others. Most of the classic cocktails, from Martinis to Manhattans, can and should be made with some form of these elixirs. There's a huge variety of bitters available now, from root beer to whiskey barrel and peach, but the following are the ones that should take up permanent residence in liquor cabinets across the country, not to mention the drinks to try them out in.
Peychaud's Bitters were originally created in 1830 by Antoine Amedee Peychaud, a Creole living in New Orleans. One of only two brands of bitters to survive prohibition, it's derived from a flowering plant known as a gentian, and is thinner than many other bitters, with less cloying flavors. It has a barely sweet taste that's almost masked by the liqueur's herbal impact. The aroma is somewhat floral and almost perfumey. Despite this unflattering description, it plays off other liquors and mixers incredibly well - especially when it comes to softening otherwise harsh cocktails like the Sazerac or blending disparate flavors in the Bloomsbury.
A cocktail with a mix of sweet and heavily herbal liqueurs that just don't mesh without the bitters, this drink is a great showcase for what Peychaud's can bring to the table.
2 ounces gin (preferably a heavily herbal one like Plymouth)
½ ounce Licor 43
½ ounce Lillet Blanc
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
Fill shaker with ice and add all ingredients. Stir until combined and strain into a cocktail glass and marvel that something so bizarre can actually taste so damn good.
Tough to find on liquor store shelves for years, orange bitters were difficult to track down as recently as a few years ago, but are returning to prominence. Flavored with Seville orange peels, caraway, coriander, burnt sugar and cardamom, these bitters have a decidedly distinct smell - sort of an orange flavored car air-freshener, but in an oddly good way. Traditionally, they were used in a classic Martini, but as orange bitters became more scarce, the recipe fell out of favor, especially in the 90s when ordering a Martini was just code for a massive bowl of vodka. Not that there's anything terribly wrong with that.
2 ½ ounces gin (again, a bigger gin is usually better – Boodles is usually a reliable standby for Martinis)
½ ounce dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Fill a shaker with ice and add the ingredients in order. Whatever you do, stir it, don't shake it. Shaking will melt too much ice and disturb the incredibly delicate balance in this classic. In other words, James Bond is an idiot. Strain it into a cocktail glass and drop a lemon peel in.
Like most bitters, these were developed as a tonic for what ails you - in this case by a German. Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert was an army surgeon in Venezuela who started selling bottles of the stuff around 1824. The town he operated from was called Angostura, and Siegert used local ingredients in his concoction. Supposedly only 11 people in the world know the recipe, so the flavor is somewhat mysterious, a sour vanilla making a quick appearance before the herbal notes really kick in. Originally recommended for hiccups and upset stomachs, Angostura bitters were quickly tapped to mask the taste of quinine in tonic water, and are now used in a huge variety of cocktails - especially to tone down some of the sweeter tropical drinks like the Dark and Stormy.
Dark and Stormy
5 lime wedges
2 ounces Gosling's Black Seal Rum
Top off with ginger beer (Use a ginger beer with a lot of ginger flavor for best results - Barritt's Ginger Beer is the gold standard)
5 dashes Angostura Bitters
Muddle the limes in the bottom of a highball glass and add ice. Pour in the rum, then top off with the ginger beer, add the bitters and stir. Find a sunny spot and do as little as possible while downing your drink.