Exploring the origins of the American cocktail will lead curious barflies and booze enthusiasts to its original four ingredients: sugar, water, spirits and bitters. Yes, bitters -- those widely misunderstood, high-proof elixirs cooked up by apothecaries in the early 1800s.
With "medicinal" properties culled from herbs, spices and dried fruit peels -- as well as elements like tree bark -- cocktail bitters became integral to drink-mixing. Well into the mid-20th century, cocktails called for something both acrid and soothing ... to stimulate appetites before dinner, and assuage stomachs after.
Unfortunately, Americans had little stomach for bitters themselves. Bitters were out of favor in the post-WWII era, as drinkers indulged their sweet tooth with fruitier concoctions.
Bitters are potent (around 90 proof) and somewhat acerbic, which is why bartenders only use a "dash" or so at a time. But because of their varying, concentrated flavors, bitters complement both herbaceous spirits (gin) and aged spirits (rum, bourbon, et al.). Chris Luton, who bartends at The Library in South Side, says bitters cut that alcohol-whiff at the beginning of a sip, while accentuating flavors as they go down.
And in recent years, bitters have been regaining popularity. Now that "everyone has their little bar book on their phone," Luton says, customers are requesting more sophisticated drinks that require ingredients like bitters -- a trend Luton hails as a welcome change from people simply "going out and drinking 15 beers."
Want a good reintroduction to bitters? Try The Library's take on a classic Old Fashioned, the "Fahrenheit 451": 2 ½ oz. Woodford Reserve Bourbon; sugar; a dash or two of bitters muddled together with cherries; a splash of Cointreau. The Cointreau accentuates the oaky, small-batch Woodford, making it perfect for bitters beginners who enjoy whiskey.
If you want to tinker at home, start with Peychaud Bitters (147 ml for $5.29) and Angostura Aromatic Bitters (296 ml $10.99), or try your hand at more creative options from Fee Bros., like grapefruit or orange bitters (118 ml for $7.99).