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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
The Latest Way to Enjoy Pho in Vietnam: As a Cocktail
James Duong, AFP/Getty Images
James Duong, AFP/Getty Images

Pho is something of a national dish in Vietnam. The noodle soup, typically topped with beef or chicken, can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. There’s even a version of it for happy hour, as Lonely Planet reports.

The pho cocktail, served at Nê Cocktail Bar in Hanoi, contains many of the herbs and spices found in pho, like cinnamon, star anise, cilantro, and cardamom. Without the broth or meat, its taste is refreshingly sweet.

The drink's uniqueness makes it a popular choice among patrons, as does the dramatic way it's prepared. The bartender pours gin and triple sec through the top of a tall metal apparatus that contains three saucers holding the spices. He then lights the saucers on fire with a hand torch as the liquid flows through, allowing the flavors to infuse with the alcohol as the drink is filtered into a pitcher below.

The pho cocktail
James Duong, AFP/Getty Images

Pham Tien Tiep, who was named Vietnam’s best bartender at the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition in 2012, created the cocktail six years ago while working at the famous French Colonial-era hotel the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, according to AFP. He has since brought his signature drink to several of the stylish bars he owns in Vietnam’s capital, including Nê Cocktail Bar.

Initially, he set out to create a drink that would represent Vietnam’s culture and history. “I created the pho cocktail at the Metropole Hotel, just above the war bunkers where the American musician Joan Baez sang to the staff and guests in December 1972 as bombs fell on the city,” Tiep told Word Vietnam magazine. “The alcohol in the cocktail is lit on fire to represent the bombs, while spices, such as chili and cinnamon, reflect the warmness of her voice.”

Tiep has a reputation for infusing his drinks with unusual local ingredients. He has also created a cocktail that features fish sauce, a popular condiment in Vietnam, and another that contains capsicum, chili, and lemongrass in an ode to the bo luc lac (shaking beef) dish, according to CNN.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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Health
Just 5 Alcoholic Drinks a Week Could Shorten Your Lifespan
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Wine lovers were elated when a scientific study last year suggested that drinking a glass of wine a day could help them live longer. Now a new study, published in The Lancet, finds that having more than 100 grams of alcohol a week (the amount in about five glasses of wine or pints of beer) could be detrimental to your health.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the British Heart Foundation studied the health data of nearly 600,000 drinkers in 19 countries and found that five to 10 alcoholic drinks a week (yes, red wine included) could shave six months off the life of a 40-year-old.

The penalty is even more severe for those who have 10 to 15 drinks a week (shortening a person’s life by one to two years), and those who imbibe more than 18 drinks a week could lose four to five years of their lives. In other words, your lifespan could be shortened by half an hour for every drink over the daily recommended limit, according to The Guardian, making it just as risky as smoking.

"The paper estimates a 40-year-old drinking four units a day above the guidelines [the equivalent of drinking three glasses of wine in a night] has roughly two years' lower life expectancy, which is around a 20th of their remaining life," David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge who was not involved with the study, tells The Guardian. "This works out at about an hour per day. So it's as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette."

[h/t The Guardian]

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