The Bitter Quest, Phase 1: If Time-Honored Cocktails are Wrong, I Don't Wanna Be Right.

My first step was to try out cocktails – other than my beloved Manhattan – where bitters represent the finishing touch.  How could cocktails imbibed by millions – if not billions – of people over the course of decades possibly suck?

The contenders:

Photo borrowed from

The Sazerac
  • 2 parts brandy or rye whiskey 
  • 1 dash Peychaud's bitters 
  • 1 dash of Angostura bitters 
  • 1 teaspoon sugar or simple syrup 
  • 1 teaspoon absinthe 
Rinse the inside of a small old fashioned glass with the absinthe and discard the excess. Stir all the other ingredients together gently in a cocktail shaker with ice, and strain into the absinthe-coated glass. 
– Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em by Stanley Clisby Arthur, 1937, via Huffington Post

Image credit: Howdini

Rachel Maddow's Champagne Cocktail
  • champagne 
  • sugar cube 
  • Angostura Bitters 
Place the sugar cube in a champagne flute, and soak the cube in Angostura Bitters. "Don't be afraid, it'll be fine."  Top with champagne.  According to Rachel, this is a delicious way to use up leftover champagne.  (As if you'd ever have any.)

Image credit: the awesome

Old Fashioned
  • 1 sugar cube (or 1 bar spoon simple syrup) 
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitter 
  • 2 ounces rye or bourbon 
  • Orange twist 
From the New York Times: "Muddle the sugar cube and bitters with one bar spoon of water at the bottom of a chilled rocks glass. (If using simple syrup, combine bitters and one bar spoon of syrup.) Add rye or bourbon. Stir. Add one large ice cube, or three or four smaller cubes. Stir until chilled and properly diluted, about 30 seconds. Slip orange twist on the side of the cube."

Credit: Food and Wine
Pisco Sour
  • 2 fl oz (8 parts) Pisco 
  • 1 fl oz (4 parts) lime juice 
  • 3/4 fl oz (3 part) simple syrup 
  • 1 egg white 
  • 1 dash Bitters 
From the Huffington Post: "Shake hard or blend with ice and strain into old-fashioned glass, straight up, without ice. The bitters are an aromatic garnish topping the finished drink, put on top of pisco sour foam."

The verdict: these are awesome drinks... when I left out or went light on the bitters.  In every case, bitters seemed to overwhelm, not complement.  

So what's my deal?  

TBC: The Quest, Phase 2: What the Hell Are Bitters, Anyway?