In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain says there’s a common joke among bartenders – which will last longer, your bitters or your marriage? I can confirm that my bottle of Angostura bitters has been around for several years and there’s a good chance I will be buried with it, despite all the Manhattans I’m making at home.

According to Albert Schmid’s The Manhattan Cocktail, “Bitters are to cocktails what herbs and spices are to food. Bitters are made from high-proof alcohol that has been infused with the flavors of roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, botanicals, flowers, and herbs. Bitters give ‘depth and complexity’ to a drink as salt and pepper do to food.”

When Rosemary and I began our journey to find the perfect Manhattan cocktail I had a sudden realization that I had no idea what bitters actually were or where they came from.  We went out to Buffalo Trace to learn how Regans’ and Peychaud’s bitters are made. Regans’ were developed specifically for Manhattan cocktails, while Peychaud’s were arguably one of the first bittering tonics ever developed. (More on that here.)

For this experiment we tested five different kinds of bitters, all with alcohol bases. We decided against using non alcohol based bitters because we have not found any we particularly care for. There are lots of great bitters out there for different applications, but we narrowed it down to the five we felt would perform best. Each Manhattan contained Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye, Byrrh Grand Quinquina, and two dashes of bitters and was stirred.

  1. Angostura – This is basically the gold standard. It’s what you will find at almost any bar. With our standard recipe there was a lot of spice but it was well balanced.
  2. Bob’s Abbott’s – This recipe was developed from an old classic recipe. In our standard recipe it smelled amazing at first but then took on a strong cinnamon profile. The flavor didn’t match the initial aroma, however. There was some sort of medicinal quality and it seemed like there just wasn’t enough of something in the mix. It was one dimensional and very vanilla forward.
  3. Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry by Bourbon Barrel Foods – This was slightly less spicy than the Angostura bitters and there was more cherry on the nose than there was on the palate. It provided good balance and didn’t overwhelm the whiskey.
  4. Regans’ Orange Bitters – It smelled absolutely lovely. There was a long finish that was an absolute spice bomb. The flavor on the front end was great but the balance seemed off and the orange felt overpowering. We both agreed this would be great in an Old Fashioned or in a Manhattan for someone who prefers an Old Fashioned.
  5. Peychaud’s – There was good balance with lots of spice initially and it smelled great, but there was almost no finish aside from something faint that almost felt like barrel tannin.

The Conclusion

There was not a bad drink among this mix. We used top shelf ingredients, which we have come to realize makes all the difference. You can abuse and mess up part of your drink and it still will turn out great if you use excellent ingredients. Rosemary ranked Angostura number one and the Woodford Spiced Cherry number two, while I ranked Woodford Spiced Cherry number one and Angostura number two. Because this vermouth is on the spicy side it needs a less spicy bitter. So far Angostura seems to go well with everything, which is probably why it is so universal. They were all great drinks, however, and we both agreed that we would not send any of these back if they were served to us.

Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl

Rosemary Miller also contributed to this article.