A Bevvy Of Bitters



Above is a selection of bitters, which in this case has nothing to do with beer. Bitters is a European-origin beverage, fairly strong (25-50% ABV), compounded of alcohol, sweetening, and flavourings which may be spices, herbs, fruits and/or barks and plants. Generally they offer a bitter-sweet palate and often are intensely flavoured. Angostura’s and other cocktail bitters are a special class of bitters, not a beverage as such but with a not dissimilar set of flavours. Typically they are used in the Manhattan and other cocktails.

Amaro is an Italian class of bitters, there are numerous brands. The fruity-bitter Campari is also well-known, generally used with soda as an aperitif or mixed with gin or vodka.

The bitters on the right in the image is an absinthe bitters, from the reputed J.C. Baczewski. The house is or was a well-known Polish distiller but I think is based now in Austria. The bottle was bought in Ontario some dozen years ago and isn’t carried currently by LCBO, so I’m not sure if the brand is still made or where. Even though “vodka” appears on the label, it isn’t a vodka proper albeit the little water” figures in its composition. The style of the drink is called Piolunowka. Wormwood and other herbs, those associated to absinthe proper, do figure in most recipes. The herbs are allowed to macerate in strong spirit vs. being distilled to aromatise them, therein lies the difference with the famed Green Fairy.

As well, Piołunowka has a sweet side most absinthe does not. Maison Baczewski must add honey since there is an unmistakable scent and taste of the beehive, almost like a sauterne. It is very good, bitter-sweet, herbal, not anise-like in this case. I only take a thimbleful at any one time – just a little is enough.

The two new bitters in my stash are the famous Jagermeister, which I had never had before, and Alpenbitter, a local (Ontario) brand which presumably follows a Swiss or German recipe.  I assembled these to have a small group for comparison purposes.

The Jagermeister is excellent, repeated stories of its bad taste simply aren’t true – at least not to those familiar with the nuances of the alcohol palate. I’d guess the back story of bad taste, medicinal, etc. is a form of praise, using irony that is. In truth the herbal taste is really not much different to a root beer. Still, it’s kind of a cool story in a way, the famous drink that doesn’t taste great, it has a guerrilla kind of appeal.

Jager tastes very much like a Manhattan cocktail, or a Sazerac if you sweeten it and go easy on the anise. The Alpenbitter is honeyed with a good herbal note, different again from these other two. Perhaps it falls midway between them, in fact.

I know that Jager is regarded as a specific – an old word for a hangover cure, but it easily fulfills a much more pleasant office, say an ounce next to a chilled pilsener, or late at night before retiring.

The image above is slightly overexposed which gives it a 1960’s day glo effect, as in photos or merchandising from the era. Kind of appropriate in the context of all that alcohol and exotica of herbs… But Beer Et Seq will experience no psychedelic visions. Modest sips are the way to go, the flavours are scoped, and a little more is learned from l’univers des alcools.

5 thoughts on “A Bevvy Of Bitters”

  1. Gary.
    I work in Duty Free retail in Amsterdam, where Jagermeister, as expected, is a big seller.
    I noted a few years ago that many Americans purchase it, and I asked a young man once (knowing that, as a rule, spirits are cheaper in the States) why he was bothering.
    He said that he travels often and always buys Jäger in Europe as it “tastes better”.
    I was skeptical, but I’ve subsequently heard this many many times.

    • Interesting. Can it be a different formulation is used for Europe? Possibly, although I’d think not. I found the drink on the sweet side, kind of mild, with a pleasant herbal and light anise note.


  2. You got me… I thought this would be about the ‘boring brown beer’.

    (I don’t think I’ve had a Manhattan in a decade)

    • Good bitter (the beer) is never boring of course. People just take it for granted and want the latest thing whether it is as good or not. 🙂

      Yes a Manhattan is very good and remarkably like the Jager IMO. Try, say, any good Canadian rye and red vermouth, plus dash of Angostura. Very easy to make. A good bourbon is suitable too.

      By the way J.A. Baczewski still exists, it is part of another company and both have a long intertwined history. All explained here: http://www.agjab.com/start.htm

      In the section on U.S. liqueurs, there is a picture of the same bottle I reviewed, except the bottle shape and label have changed. It is still 50% ABV but that appears to be the export version, the European one (domestic) is 35%.

      I’ll be in NYC soon and will try to find it as my bottle, while 1/3rd full, has suffered some oxidation. I think the bottle was probably long in inventory even when I got it as the website explains production stopped in Poland in the late 1990’s.

      Dillon in Ontario, the craft distiller, makes an absinthe bitters but this is I believe for use with cocktails, it is not a beverage bitters I think.


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