Review: Orange Bitters

IMG_7393In the quest for the perfect Martini, there is one ingredient that can take yours to the next level.

They say the step from excellence to sublime to a mere ineffable something. Perhaps I just made that up, but I agree with myself.

Usually when I’m test-running a bar for the first time I’ll ask for a straight up, very dry Tanqueray Gin Martini. Its the basic comparison I use to test their mettle against other bars I’ve experienced. There are no distractions, no fancy ingredients, no craft Gin mojo to get in the way.

In theory, they should all taste the same, but they don’t for various reasons, and on occasion, one really sings like Sade. Why? Often its the merest hit of Orange Bitters, one of the old school Martini ingredients from way back when.

Happily, its now readily available in the shops and online after being pretty much impossible to get.

So this time round I’m looking at some that are east to get in Australia.


How its Made

Happily, its not out the realm of possibility for you to make some at home if you like the idea of mixing booze and ingredients together and experimenting. Essentially, you infuse dried ingredients like peels of Seville oranges, cardamon, caraway seed, coriander and perhaps caramel or burnt sugar in an clear alcohol base (vodka can be used in a pinch) for a period of time, a few weeks maybe, and then strain. Voila!

Of course something that simple is an art, still it may be worth a try.

It is worth remembering that Bitters was originally a medicine, to assist in the digestion especially and appeared in well before the C17th, so its intentions are good. There is something homeopathic about them.

IMG_7368Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters (150ml)

Tasted by itself, this offers a distinctly Orange hit with a not unpleasant bitter finish- exactly as advertised, not complex like its Barrel Aged companion, just a pleasant experience all round. Recommended. This is 9% ABV Price range, about $15.00


Fee Brothers Gin Barrel Aged (150ml)

There is something seriously old school about this product, and it really floats my boat. It has been aged in Old Tom Gin barrels based on oranges from the West Indies. It offers a much more complex palate, is more bitter than its sister in the range, and reminds me of Xmas Pudding. Its darker + richer, but rather addictive, use sparingly and its in limited release.  It is 9% ABV and price range, about $30.00


Angostura Orange Bitters (100ml)

No, this isn’t the stuff you use to make a lemon, lime and bitters with. Its from the same company in the Caribbean though where they understand what makes for a nice drink in the heat. This is REALLY bitter straight up, with some burnt notes + caramel at the end, and it lacks the complexity of the above labels and is 28% ABV. Price range, about $15.00


The Bitters selection at Lily Blacks in Melbourne.
The Bitters selection at Lily Blacks in Melbourne.

Using Bitters

First up just try some on your finger to get a taste before dashing away. Remember, less is more here, you’ll only need a few drops. When mixing my Martini, as I’m letting the mix stand for a moment after stirring, and I’m doing my garnish, its then I’ll put a few drops into the glass.

I did try it in the mixer with the Gin + Vermouth but it got rather lost. The pouring of the cocktail over the garnish + bitters seems to doe the trick.

You’re not after a orange cocktail or something that will mask the Martini complexity. What it does do is round it out subtly, give you a slight citrus note, and particularly if you’ve a more mainstream London Dry style Gin it gives you a nice refinement.

Bitters would be wasted though in a heavily flavoured Craft Gin though.  In the same way as a choice of garnish can reveal a particular botanical in the Gin, a bitters can reveal new dimensions, that je ne sais quoi, so let them guide you.


Also Look Out For

Locally in Australia, there is Only Bitters that offers an interesting + exotic range (such as Filthy Dirty, Lolita, Cherry Bark Vanilla and Lem-Marrakech) via mail order.

There are also others labels you can explore, such as Regans Orange Bitters No. 6 (one of the originals) and Bittermans from the USA which I’ve noticed is available from from Wig’s Cellar in Melbourne city, along with  Mister Bitters (Australia), Bad Dog (USA), The Bitter Truth (UK) and Peychauds (USA).

Some bars can get creative with other types of Bitters (such as the pictured Lily Blacks) so if you’re getting a tad bored with your usual, then time to try some alchemy.