So I've started reading the 12 Bottle Bar lately. They're a really great site, with the aim of helping you make classy, old-school drinks with the least amount of weird supplies and esoteric ingredients possible. So I thought I might try my hand at something. Only, instead of "weird supplies" and "esoteric ingredients," substitute "money" and "judgment."
In my time writing this blog, essentially, I've drunk a lot of terrible things. And I rarely finish whatever bottle of terrible I review on the night I review it. Which leaves me with the question: what do I do with it afterward? I usually get a couple friends to choke down some out of curiosity and sympathy, and sometimes I get angry at something online and hatedrink a little, but there are a lot of times where I have to figure out different cocktails, ingredients, and methods of actually using this terrible stuff. And that's why I'm starting the Gutrotter Tools series-- both so I can talk about actual good mixology, and so that I can help you save money by making that five-o-clock vodka drinkable.
Bitters are something you should own. They're not something you need to own, but a small bottle will last you for about a year if you're sparing. They have their roots in the medicine-show snake-oil days, when they were essentially just grain alcohol that had soaked up some flavor from weird botanicals and herbs. But they really shine in a lot of the more spirit-heavy cocktails, like the Old Fashioned, where their strong flavors (in very small amounts) can help to balance and compliment the flavor of liquor.
There are really only two major kinds, and you should own both. Peychaud's is originally from New Orleans. It's got a sweet flavor and a lot of floral notes, a little like rosewater. There's also a pretty strong element of cinnamon there, but it's not overpowering, which is really hard to do (see: Pelinkovac). There's a little bit of fennel and anise to its flavor, too-- since it was formulated in the absinthe heart of America, this isn't surprising. This spice and sweetness makes a really great compliment t the botanical flavor of gin, and goes great with lighter, crisper whisky (think Canadian Club), or rye-based whisky in general, by helping to even out the flavor and smooth it some.
Angostura is originally from Barbados and pretty radically different from Peychaud's. It's got a very strong citrus flavor--mostly oranges--and the spice flavors are much more like cloves, allspice, and nutmeg. It's a little more rounded in flavor, without the sharp cinnamon and anise and with a slightly more fruity tinge to it.
How to use them? These can go in pretty much anything you decide to gutrot, as long as it's got a flavor of its own (I wouldn't try vodka). Essentially, use Peychaud's for gin, crisper whiskies, and tequila. Use Angostura for rum, bourbon, and most liqueurs. They're both really strong in flavor, so only a few drops. Remember, though-- what you're drinking isn't good, so feel free to go a little overboard and use these to mask the flavor. Try putting a couple shots of cheap-ass whisky (like Kentucky Gentleman) in Coke or soda water and splashing a fair bit of bitters in there.
In this case, essentially, you're using them like a veil for an ugly bride: it's a pretty small thing in its own right, but it can make a world of difference.