December 20th, 2006
Buying, making bitters in Boston
Fellow 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…