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A Brief History of Cocktail Bitters - And 10 Kinds You Should Try

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The secret to the perfect cocktail is an old staple from the Union army’s first aid kit.

Drinkers have been adding bitters—alcohol infused with herbs, spices, and botanicals—to their booze since the 18th century. While today’s bitters are prized for cutting a drink’s sweetness and balancing its flavor and aroma, during the 19th century, the booze enhancers also claimed to cure everything from malaria to indigestion. These little potions tasted so unpleasant that drinkers assumed they just had to be healthy.

During the Civil War the Union army fueled the bitters mania, purchasing whole train cars of Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters. The Pennsylvania-made elixir billed itself as “a positive protective against the fatal maladies of the Southern swamps, and the poisonous tendency of the impure rivers and bayous.” Union officers called it “the Soldier’s Safeguard.” Although its medicinal effects were likely nil, the 94-proof potency did help to steel nerves, and demand for these booster shots continued to soar after the war.

Things turned sour for bitters at the beginning of the 20th century, when the government cracked down on the cure-all’s dubious medical claims. And while a few companies managed to hang around thanks to savvy bartenders, the bitters market remained sluggish until the classic-cocktail revival in the early 1990s made them essential again.

Today, bitters are enjoying a sweet renaissance. Stalwarts like Angostura and Peychaud's share shelf space with tiny bottles from upstart alchemists, making for livelier, more interesting drinks. The next time you break out your jigger, reach for the bitters as well. Your taste buds will thank you.

10 TO TRY

These bitters will sweeten up your home bar.

1. BAD DOG SARSAPARILLA DRY

Price: $24
An explosion of root beer rounded out by wintergreen and vanilla. Perfect for turning any soda fountain into a bar!

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2. BITTERCUBE CHERRY BARK VANILLA

Price: $16
This Milwaukee gem will make you look like a bartending genius each time you whip up a Manhattan.

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3. SCRAPPY’S AROMATIC

Price: $18
Want a spicier, fancier old-fashioned? Balance out the cocktail’s sweetness with lots of clove and cinnamon.

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4. BITTERS, OLD MEN GANGSTA LEE’N

Price: $12
Finally, a way to add smoky bacon to your cocktails without a skillet. Pair this with whiskey and call it breakfast.

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5. REGAN’S ORANGE

Price: $10
Remember those gummy orangepeel candies your grandma always ate? They’re back, in booze form and ready for a martini.

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6. THE BITTER TRUTH JERRY THOMAS OWN DECANTER

Price: $23
This modern recreation of a 19th century cocktail savant's recipe adds a fruity punch to any whiskey cocktail.

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7. BITTERED SLING GRAPEFRUIT AND HOPS

Price: $29
Wish your white-spirit cocktails tasted more like an India Pale Ale? Look no further!

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8. FEE BROTHERS WHISKEY BARREL-AGED

Price: $18
It's a proven fact that aging any liquid in a whiskey barrel makes it at least 40 percent better. These aromatic bitters are no exception.

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9. HELLA BITTER AROMATIC

Price: $11
These Brooklyn treats transform a normal Manhattan into a liquid Christmas cookie full of clove and cinnamon.

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10. URBAN MOONSHINE MAPLE

Price: $14
In addition to giving any drink a bit of well-balanced maple sweetness, these bitters prove that there's absolutely nothing Vermont can't do with its syrups.

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science
Why Adding Water to Your Whiskey Makes It Taste Better
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Don’t ever let people tease you for watering down your whiskey. If they’re true aficionados, they’ll know that adding a splash of water or a few cubes of ice to your drink will actually enhance its natural flavors. But how can something as flavorless as water make a barrel-aged scotch or bourbon taste even better? Chemists think they’ve found the answer.

As The Verge reports, researchers from the Linnæus University Centre for Biomaterials Chemistry in Sweden analyzed the molecular composition of whiskey in the presence of water. We already know that the molecule guaiacol is largely responsible for whiskey’s smoky taste and aroma. Guaiacol bonds to alcohol molecules, which means that in straight whiskey that guaiacol flavor will be fairly evenly distributed throughout the cask. Alcohol is repelled by water, and guaiacol partially so. That means when a splash of water is added to the beverage the alcohol gets pushed to the surface, dragging the guaiacol along with it. Concentrated at the top of the glass, the whiskey’s distinctive taste and scent is in the perfect position to be noticed by the drinker.

According to the team’s experiments, which they laid out in the journal Scientific Reports [PDF], whiskey that’s been diluted down to 40 percent to 45 percent alcohol content will start to show more guaiacol sloshing near the surface. Most commercial whiskey is already diluted before it's bottled, so the drink you order in a bar should fall within this range to begin with. Adding additional water or ice will boost the flavor-enhancing effect even further.

As for just how much water to add, the paper doesn’t specify. Whiskey lovers will just have to conduct some experiments of their own to see which ratios suit their palate.

[h/t NPR]

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Big Questions
If Beer and Bread Use Almost the Exact Same Ingredients, Why Isn't Bread Alcoholic?
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If beer and bread use almost the exact same ingredients (minus hops) why isn't bread alcoholic?

Josh Velson:

All yeast breads contain some amount of alcohol. Have you ever smelled a rising loaf of bread or, better yet, smelled the air underneath dough that has been covered while rising? It smells really boozy. And that sweet smell that fresh-baked bread has under the yeast and nutty Maillard reaction notes? Alcohol.

However, during the baking process, most of the alcohol in the dough evaporates into the atmosphere. This is basically the same thing that happens to much of the water in the dough as well. And it’s long been known that bread contains residual alcohol—up to 1.9 percent of it. In the 1920s, the American Chemical Society even had a set of experimenters report on it.

Anecdotally, I’ve also accidentally made really boozy bread by letting a white bread dough rise for too long. The end result was that not enough of the alcohol boiled off, and the darned thing tasted like alcohol. You can also taste alcohol in the doughy bits of underbaked white bread, which I categorically do not recommend you try making.

Putting on my industrial biochemistry hat here, many [people] claim that alcohol is only the product of a “starvation process” on yeast once they run out of oxygen. That’s wrong.

The most common brewers and bread yeasts, of the Saccharomyces genus (and some of the Brettanomyces genus, also used to produce beer), will produce alcohol in both a beer wort
and in bread dough immediately, regardless of aeration. This is actually a surprising result, as it runs counter to what is most efficient for the cell (and, incidentally, the simplistic version of yeast biology that is often taught to home brewers). The expectation would be that the cell would perform aerobic respiration (full conversion of sugar and oxygen to carbon dioxide and water) until oxygen runs out, and only then revert to alcoholic fermentation, which runs without oxygen but produces less energy.

Instead, if a Saccharomyces yeast finds itself in a high-sugar environment, regardless of the presence of air it will start producing ethanol, shunting sugar into the anaerobic respiration pathway while still running the aerobic process in parallel. This phenomenon is known as the Crabtree effect, and is speculated to be an adaptation to suppress competing organisms
in the high-sugar environment because ethanol has antiseptic properties that yeasts are tolerant to but competitors are not. It’s a quirk of Saccharomyces biology that you basically only learn about if you spent a long time doing way too much yeast cell culture … like me.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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