Earlier this week, New York Times spirits writer Rosie Schaap offered a moving, very personal appreciation of the Manhattan. My mantra is life is a simple one – DON’T READ THE COMMENTS – but when cocktails are involved, I make an exception. I was amazed by the number of people who volunteered that when preparing Manhattans, they don’t bother with bitters. Like Ms. Schaap, I pride myself on flexibility when it comes to the king of whiskey drinks. Rye or bourbon, up or on the rocks, traditional or perfect (half sweet vermouth, half dry). I enjoy them all. But always, always with bitters.
Aside on the comments: Reading them did allow to me see that a Hong Kong resident sang the praises of my favorite bar, saying that the Zig Zag Café was worth a trip to Seattle and “is just what a bar should be: a dark hole in the wall with a great bartender.” Aside on the aside: the Zig Zag Café has a brand new website!
Sampled on their own, yes, bitters can taste bitter. But when employed judiciously they provide a unifying element around which a cocktail can coalesce. They’re particularly useful in tempering sweetness, their concentrated burst of flavor adding another level to a drink’s overall profile.
One of my favorite ways of demonstrating what bitters bring to a cocktail party is the Fourth Regiment. Robert Hess of DrinkBoy notes that the recipe appears in the little known 1889 book 282 Mixed Drinks from the Private Records of a Bartender of the Olden Days. But like many a cocktail it owes what reputation it has to Charles H. Baker, Jr. and his Gentleman’s Companion. Baker observes, in his own inimitable fashion, that the Fourth Regiment was “Brought to Our Amazed Attention by One Commander Livesey, in Command of One of His Majesty’s Dapper Little Sloops of War, out in Bombay, A.D. 1931.” He calls it “merely a Manhattan Cocktail in 4 oz. size” with Angostura, celery, and orange bitters, “but why the last was included we never have understood as the Angostura dominates.”
The modern version isn’t close to four ounces in size, and the Angostura doesn’t bully its compatriots at all. In fact, a different flavor takes its turn on the floor with each sip. By the time you’ve drained your glass, you’ll have a very clear sense of how essential bitters are to the cocktail experience. Soon enough, you’ll have a full shelf of them like I have.
The Fourth Regiment
1 oz. rye
1 oz. sweet vermouth
dash of Angostura bitters
dash of celery bitters
dash of orange bitters
Stir. Strain. No garnish.