Angostura is the most widely known aromatic bitters, but not your only choice when it comes to stocking this important ingredient of your 9-Bottle Bar. This week we look at a few strong contenders. Time to stop and smell the bitters.
To recap a bit from last week's introduction to aromatic bitters, we learned that bottles belonging to this category of cocktail "seasoning" tend to present a flavor profile that's anchored in notes of bitter roots and baking spice. Aromatic bitters are much less fruity than, say, orange bitters, and serve to deepen the flavors they mingle with. A Manhattan without aromatic bitters, for instance, would come off as too sweet and too oaked. Bitters help to rein in the drink's sweet vermouth and give more dimension to the aged flavors of the whiskey.
Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters — $10
On the nose, Fee's Old Fashion Bitters is redolent of cinnamon and allspice, like holiday cookies. But behind that heady, almost sweet aroma is a potent concoction that, on the palate, registers the sort of pungent bitterness one would expect of an aromatic bitters. That kick comes thanks to both Angostura bark and gentian root, the two main bittering agents in the recipe. To me, the gentian comes across more dominant, leaving the finish more herbaceous than earthen. This is a great value and a solid all-around aromatic bitters.
The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters — $18
Professor Jerry Thomas, if you aren't up on your cocktail history, is a legendary 19th-century bartender. He's the subject of David Wondrich's book Imbibe! Thomas also made his own bitters. The Bitter Truth, a German brand turning out exceptional varieties of bitters and liqueurs, many of which are historical throwbacks, have researched Thomas's recipes bitters and adapted them to create this product.
There's much less, if any, of that sweetness on the nose here. The Bitter Truth's Decanter Bitters presents aromas of brooding clove and wood. There's a tingling spiciness to this stuff when it hits the palate. (Yes, I taste tested all these bitters solo. No, I wouldn't recommend doing so.) The clove comes through, along with grapefruit peel and cedar. If you like classically bitter, this is the bottle for you.
Angostura Aromatic Bitters — $7
Look familiar? I bet it does, as Angostura has in large part carried the torch for aromatic bitters for decades. When interest in bitters went dormant, Angostura managed to stay present, if not exactly relevant. That changed lately as newly established brands like the Bitter Truth began giving Ango a run for its money.
Still, you have to give credit where due. Ango is extremely consistent and beautifully balanced. It's the go-to for good reason. Unlike the strong cinnamon of the Fee's and the clove of the Bitter Truth, the fragrance of Angostura, to me, is driven by the Angostura tree bark that gives this product its name. Caramel, clove, and cardamom are there, too, adding sweetness and spice.