Bitters & New Orleans Cocktails – What I Learned from Strolling The Streets with a Sazerac

I took last week off of blogging to travel on vacation. I have a vacation philosophy I refer to as “when in Rome”.  Since I like all manners of Taste Experiences and am not relegated to wine, this is never a problem for me.

New Orleans is a cocktail mecca, so wine got (largely) set to the side – with the exception of some canned sparklers which were fabulous and some plastic cup wine that wasn’t so fabulous but made good company on a kayaking trip with alligators (that’s a different story).

A large number of cocktails have originated in New Orleans starting with the Sazerac in the 1830s. The Sazerac is an Old Fashion-like drink that has a lot more nuance with absinthe (an anise-flavored cordial, think black licorice) and Peychaud’s bitters.  Another example is the Ramos Gin Fizz pictured on the left side of the photo.  This cocktail became a favorite of mine for it’s subtlety with egg whites, orange water, and cream the nuances of the gin’s botanicals were allowed to shine through.

In New Orleans, you walk into a restaurant, order a cocktail, get it in a plastic cup and walk around the city to explore and watch street music randomly strike up.   There was something utterly authentic and unique about the city.  It was culturally its own.  The food was amazing.  The cocktails were stunning.  The music was at an entirely different level.  And like no other city I’ve been to, no matter what bar I was in (including a hot dog stand) different bitters were treated as unique entities.  The choice of bitters was critical to the choice of cocktail.  New Orleans cocktails specifically call for Angostura, Peychaud’s or in the case of the Vieux Carré invented in the 1930s – both.  If the recipe is not local to New Orleans and didn’t call for a specific type of bitters – we were asked for our preference. 

This entire experience sent me on a research mission on bitters.  My obsession for bitters started a year ago.  I received a bottle of homemade bitters last summer as a hostess gift for a wine party.  That bottle inspired a resurgence of original cocktail recipes, which inspired the collection of more bitters.  I’ve learned that original cocktail recipes benefit from the nuances added by just a few dashes or droppers.

So what is bitters?

Simply put…

Flavorless spirits are infused with a LOT of botanicals to create bitters. The strength means a few dashes or drops go a long way.

And why does New Orleans have just an intricate relationship with bitters?  Peychaud’s bitters traces its origin to Antoine Peychaud, a Creole immigrant and his apothecary in the French Quarter.  The famous Sazerac drink was made there first with brandy, then later with rye whiskey and eventually the Sazerac company was born. This company now owns many distillery names we know in America, including Buffalo Trace.  I spent the weekend doing research and side-by-side bitters tastings and wanted to share my discoveries with you.

It’s easy to go into the mixers section in a liquor store and see 2-3 bitters and not realize the differences between them so I’ll run through a quick side-by-side tasting on a few available options and wrap up the post with an exploration of the Sazerac cocktail made in the style of the 1830s and the 1870s.

Bitters Tasting

Angostura bitters is the most widely available. We all know the paper cover on the bottle that goes a little too high with the yellow cap.  It’s a good one though.  This versatile all-around bitters adds a lot to drinks.  It’s subtler, less bitter and has cinnamon notes. If you get the orange variety, it is intensely orange, and slightly (but not too) sweet which helps if you want the subtle flavor of orange without the sweetness of a cordial in your cocktail. 

Peychaud’s had distinct notes of black licorice and subtle florals when I tasted it.  It was softer than the other bitters I tasted and I see why it’s a smashing combination paired with the Absinthe in my Sazerac.

Bittercube is a company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and their bitters can be purchased online or are available at a number of places in the Twin Cities.  Byerly’s liquor store sells these as well as my corner store, Bayport Liquor (where I first discovered them) and prices start at $10 each.   Today I tried a few of them:

Jamaican #2 – The nose had jerk seasoning, tropical fruit and florals like hibiscus.  The tasting added grapefuit to the mix.  I can envision a cocktail wrapped around this with a touch of jalapeno, a bright bubbly like prosecco, and grapefuit juice.  Sounds like a summer project!

Bolivar – This bitters was sweeter and subtler with lighter florals and fruit. It was meadow-like, perfect for spring.  Lots of options here for an herbacious cocktail. Something with muddled herbs and lighter flavors.  A white sangria would love this bitters.

Cherry Bark Vanilla – The name says it all.  Think misty woodlands, cherry, musk and vanilla.  There is no end to the number of things this bitter can do – which is why I’ve already used over half the bottle.  I love it in a creamy cocktail where you’re looking for the essence of cherry or vanilla but don’t want to add a sweet cordial or actual cherry juice to the mix. It also helps amplify the flavors of those cordials in a cocktail without adding more sweet.  Coffee-based cocktails also love this bitters.

The last bitters on my tasting list unfortunately can’t be bought in a store!  I have a friend who gifted me a homemade bottle she affectionately named “Bombay”.  This bitters has the essence of Indian curry and I’ve built a cocktail around this for summer time that includes bold pressed coffee, orange bitters, orange liquor, coffee liquor, fireball and cream.  Mixed all up it serves as an excellent after dinner cocktail!

Looking to get our of your mixed drink rut? Stock lots of bitters.  It’s amazing what you can do with a few drops of this and a few dashes of that.

Before & After: the Sazerac

After this exploration of bitters I decided to close this chapter on New Orleans with a before and after look at the Sazerac.  So I made one in the fashion of the early 1800s (with brandy) and the late 1800s (with Rye Whiskey).

Recipe (shaken on ice):

  • 1/4 oz. absinthe (a cordial that tastes like anise and fennel, popular in drinks in New Orleans) – for this exercise I used Tattersall, they are local to Minneapolis and have a lot of unique cordials that are hard to find elsewhere. This bottle cost me ~$35 at Top Ten Liquor
  • 3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
  • 1-1/2 oz. brandy for rev 1 and rye whiskey for rev 2 – an entire article needs to be devoted to whiskeys and brandy’s so I won’t get into detail. I used E&Js VSOP for the brandy and High West for the rye whiskey because that’s what I had on hand.
  • A sugar cube (stronger simple syrup works here as well)

The winner for me was clearly the old style with the brandy.  The subtle sweetness of the brandy helped to balance out the bitter sharp edge of the absinthe and the aroma profiles of the bitters and let them come through more. 

I hope I’ve inspired you to go mix up a cocktail!

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