December 20th, 2006

Buying, making bitters in Boston

Tonka beansFellow Boston drinks writer and Weekly Dig contributor MC Slim JB emailed me recently asking if I knew where to buy bitters locally. It seems this question came up recently on the Boston Area section of the Chowhound board. I told him what I knew: Eastern Standard stocks extra bottles of orange bitters (Fee Bros. and Regan’s) and Peychaud’s bitters to sell to those who ask. Christina’s spice shop in Inman Square, Cambridge sells Fee Bros. orange bitters (and also orange flower water for your homemade grenadine). Also, I seem to remember that Blanchard’s liquor store in Allston (617-782-5588) stocks Fee Bros. orange bitters and Peychaud’s, but you should double-check before you go.

Aromatic bitters like Angostura, Peychaud’s and all their defunct brethren are such a cool and mysterious part of cocktail history. They were medicinal potions made of top-secret blends of roots, herbs and other botanicals and consumed by the drop in a glass of whiskey or brandy to ease digestive troubles. “The Cocktail” wouldn’t exist without bitters. (See this Martini Republic post by Ted Haigh for more background and info on bitters.) After my conversation with MC Slim JB, I started some long-overdue research on bitters, particularly recipes one might be able to re-create at home. I remembered that there was a recipe in Haigh’s Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails for Boker’s bitters, a New York product that disappeared around the turn of the 20th century. Haigh reconstructed the Boker’s formula from a recipe he found in The Scientific American Cyclopedia of Receipts, Notes & Queries. Here it is:

3/4 ounce quassia chips
3/4 ounce powdered catechu
1/2 ounce cardamom
1 ounce dried orange peel
Macerate for 10 days in 1 quart strong whiskey. Filter and add 1 gallon of water. Color with Mallow or Malva flowers.

If anyone finds a local source for quassia chips, catechu and Malva flowers, let me know. Strangely, I didn’t find any of these at the well-stocked Christina’s spice shop mentioned above, but I did find Tonka beans there. Tonka beans were an ingredient in another defunct brand of bitters that cocktail geeks have been trying to recreate for years and that are probably worth more than their weight in gold on eBay: Abbott’s Bitters. Apparently, a Manhattan made with Abbott’s bitters is the Best Cocktail You Will Ever Drink. Robert “Drinkboy” Hess and some of the correspondents on his forum actually had a gas chromatograph done on an old bottle of Abbott’s and, for the most part, isolated the components of the formula. Read their recipe and ongoing discussion about Abbott’s here. According to Hess and others, one of Abbott’s key ingredients, Tonka bean, was banned by the FDA decades ago because it can cause intestinal bleeding (!). And yet, there they were: small plastic bags of Tonka beans on sale at Christina’s for $4.50. Now if I can only track down Pimenta Racemosa Bay leaves and Benzoin resin…

Permalink | Filed under Bitters, Drinking supplies |

12 Responses to “Buying, making bitters in Boston”

  1. Stephen

    my newest bitters recipe is for “wild cherry bark bitters”…. but of course they are with coriander, ginger, and orange peel….

    wild cherry bark produces a fantastic bitter but is intensely aromatic. completely redolent of wild cherries….

    i like them in a manhattan with the addition of angostura mainly to replace the disgusting fake cherries…. but i also some how got addicted to drinking it in soda water….

    i usually have some at restaurant Dante but i’m due for another batch….

  2. Adam

    I’m in the process of getting some Regan’s and Peychaud’s directly from Sazerac in NOLA.

    The first batch I ordered were confiscated and destroyed by UPS because they contained Alcohol and you can’t ship booze into the state. Oy.

    A letter from Sazerac explaining why the alcohol content isn’t really important in this case, and calling them “Aromatic Bitters used in cooking” gives me hope that the next batch will make it.

  3. ljclark

    That totally sucks, Adam! Hope they make it through the second time. If you’re ever in Kenmore Square, you should go to Eastern Standard and ask to buy bottles of these bitters from the bar.

  4. Michael

    This may help you in your search for Abbott’s ingredients….

    I live in Seattle (yes, I’m a regular at the Zig Zag!) and there are a couple of great spice shops here, both with online stores – Tenzing Momo and World Spice.

    Tenzing Momo has Tonka beans, a couple types of benzoin and Pimenta Racemosa Bay. I’d bet your local spice shop has this bay too, but ask for it’s more common name, Bay Rum. That’s how I found the stuff at Tenzing.

    btw… I haven’t tried the recipe yet, so no help here.


  5. Frederic

    I get most of my bitters off of eBay from new age hippy herbalist — very fresh and food grade. Frendzco is a store I use most (they have everything from Pimenta Racemosa Bay essential oil to tonka beans (only causes intestinal bleeding in rats, mind you chocolate kills rats… and the dose to kill a person with tonka beans is massive) in varying sizes).

    There are definitely places around town where you can get spices; however, the more rare they are, the more likely they’ve been sitting around losing potency. I discovered that buying celery seed locally versus on the web. Harvest in Central Square, Cambridge, does have a good herb section in bulk.

  6. Joe

    I’m finishing up my first two batches of bitters right now. Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 5 as outlined in Joy of Mixology and Cherry Vanilla Bitters (which sounds like Stephen’s) as described in Art of the Bar.

    A couple hiccups here and there but overall produced some solid results. I’m a bit disappointed in the Cherry Vanilla Bitters – a little on the thin side. Regans’ Orange are quite tasty, though.

    I got the majority of my supplies from Cambridge Naturals in Porter Sq., Christina’s in Inman, and the rest I got from (where I also finally scored some quinine for homemade tonic).

  7. BittersBoy

    I’ve been looking for real quinine for a while now, I’m glad i ran across this post! KTB had it in stock and at a fair price! THanks Joe!

  8. Lydia

    I found 4 bottles off Abbott´s Bitters Original with good label one it!! Anyone like to have one…

  9. John Gertsen

    Hello Lydia,



    Please let me know how I might be able to procure such a rare treat.


  10. Eric Witz

    Just curious, whatever happened to those 4 bottles of Abbott’s bitters mentioned above? Did anyone ever buy them? I’d love to get my hands on one of those (but I’m not realistically expecting to do so during my lifetime–maybe an empty bottle on eBay but that’s about it).

  11. ljclark

    Good question, Eric. I wish I could answer it. All I can say at this point is, “eBay.”

  12. Eric Witz

    I checked eBay and found an old, unfortunately empty Abbott’s Bitters bottle, which I bought solely because it seemed like a cool thing to add to my collection. The interesting thing is that it still contains some sediment, and I can detect a pretty intense aroma of cardamom if I hover my nose over the mouth of the bottle long enough. It has a really lovely bouquet, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it’s empty. I’ve posted some photos of the bottle on my Flickr page if anyone is interested.

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