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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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alcohol
A Restaurant In Australia Is Garnishing Its Margaritas With Frozen Eyeballs
Jesse Hunniford/MONA
Jesse Hunniford/MONA

A cocktail special at a new restaurant in Australia has fallen under the global gaze thanks to its floating gaze. As Nerdist reports, Faro Tapas, a new Spanish eatery at Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), offers a black margarita garnished with a frozen bull eyeball.

The frosty drink contains tequila, mezcal, lime, and charcoal (presumably for color). It's served in a glass with a black salted rim and the aforementioned toothpick-skewered peeper.

Gourmet Traveller recommends that those brave enough to sample Faro Tapas's bovine booze drink it quickly, as the eyeball's ice casing melts. (If you're willing to risk brain freeze to avoid eye mush, this sounds like a smart move.)

That said, adventurous drinkers with stomachs of steel might find Faro Tapas's eyeball-garnished margarita tame compared to the Yukon Territory's Sourtoe cocktail (it contains a dehydrated human toe) and countless other weird and wacky cocktails served up around the world. Bottoms (and eyeballs) up!

[h/t Nerdist]

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Health
Drink Up: New Study Concludes Wine Can Offset Dementia
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The health benefits of wine can sometimes be overstated by people who are a few glasses deep and slurring their words. Should you ever find yourself in a position to defend your moderate imbibing, you have supporting evidence: A new study says two glasses of wine daily can potentially reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's.

The study, which appears in Scientific Reports, shows that wine has an effect on one's glymphatic function, or the way the brain removes toxins. To clear itself of damaging and accumulated proteins like tau and beta amyloid, which are often linked with dementia, the brain pumps in cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) to act as a flushing solution. All sorts of variables can influence the glymphatic system's operation, including trauma, stroke, and excessive alcohol intake.

But when researchers dosed the mice in the study with moderate alcohol—amounting to 2.6 drinks daily—the glymphatic system was more efficient, removing more waste and exhibiting less inflammation than the teetotaling control mice.

As is usually the case when it comes to booze, you can have too much of a good thing. When mice got the equivalent of 7.9 drinks daily, their glymphatic system grew sluggish until the overindulging was terminated.

"Studies have shown that low-to-moderate alcohol intake is associated with a lesser risk of dementia, while heavy drinking for many years confers an increased risk of cognitive decline," lead study author Maiken Nedergaard, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, said in a press statement. "This study may help explain why this occurs. Specifically, low doses of alcohol appear to improve overall brain health."

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