I recently visited the Sazerac House in New Orleans while attending the New Orleans Bourbon Festival. Displayed on a wall is the collection of Peychaud’s Bitters advertisements from the 1840s and 50s. Peychaud’s Bitters are an important part of the Sazerac cocktail and Sazerac now owns and produces the brand. They are making the bulk of the bitters at Buffalo Trace, but they have set up production on a small scale at the Sazerac House in New Orleans. The house has a large section on their tour dedicated to Peychaud’s Bitters and these advertisements are a very small part of the exhibit. However, I found them the most interesting because they tell the story of bitters as a category.
Bitters were created as a medicine. They combine alcohol and herbs and were advertised as a cure for anything that ailed you. The 1859 advertisement in The Daily Picayune is a conversation between Susan and Charley.
Susan says: “Why, Brother Charley – why look so well – The cold, Pale cheek has now forever gone; Tell me, I pray thee, whence this charming spell? Or have you painted your face for fun?”
Charley answers: “I’ll tell you how it came, (the lad replies,) And, faith, my story you’ll applaud, I trow. My face, dear girl, never has been dyed – I only took a bottle of PEYCHAUD!”
It ends with “Tis needless to say that the young lad had been sickly for some time previously, and got cured by taking a bottle of PEYCHAUD’S AMERICAN AROMATIC BITTERS which is for sale, wholesale and retail, by A A Peychaud, 108 Royal street.”
The other two advertisements are of a similar theme. Bitters were touted as a cure-all in the early 19th century. You will find similar advertisements for other brands of bitters of that era. Alcohol and herbs were common “medicines” of the era and it was only a matter of time before people started combining the two and bottling it as medicine. Different herbs gave their products different flavors and people started purchasing them based upon these flavors. They would often take a spoonful of bitters after meals to “aid digestion” and prevent colds during winter.
It was only a matter of time before bartenders started incorporating bitters into cocktails. A few drops would add herbal flavors to the drink and I suspect the bartenders could then tout the health benefits of their cocktails. As cocktails became more popular in bars, so did bitters. The products moved from being just a medicine to becoming a vital part of every bar.
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 changed many things. People became suspicious of “patent medicines” and medicinal claims made by products, but bitters remained popular in cocktails and as a household medicine for colds and stomach ailments. Prohibition also saw a growth of bitters in cocktails as the flavor would cover up the flavor of bootleg whiskey of doubtful origin. When Repeal was passed in 1933, there came even more stringent regulations on making medical claims for alcohol. Bitters became a product to aid digestion and not as a curative medicine. Today they are more known as an ingredient in cocktails than for any other purpose.
Bitters are an important part of cocktail culture today. There are many popular brands being produced in many different flavors. However, they all have the common origin as a medicinal product first made in the 19th century. These advertisements give you a glimpse of the history of bitters.
Photos Courtesy of Michael Veach