Review: Jameson Wild Sloe Berry Bitters

Unveiled for Tales of the Cocktail 2015, Jameson released its first-ever bitters, taking them to an unexpected and exotic place: the sloe berry.

The sloe berry is primarily known — OK, exclusively known — for its use in sloe gin. Here, Jameson blends up sloe berry distillate, Jameson whiskey, a mix of bittering agents that includes wormwood, gentian, and ginseng, plus a bit of caramel color to produce a distinctive new bitters.

The nose is distinctively tart and fruity, backed with an appropriately root beer overtone. On the tongue, it’s (of course) quite bitter, but not as tough as you might think, with the tart sloe berries offering some balance. The finish sticks closely to the gentian/wormwood playbook, which is really just what you want from a bottle of bitters.

Of course this is not meant for solo consumption, and the sloe berry element is a surprisingly perfect foil for whiskey. While I know this is intended as a complement for Irish, give it a go with bourbon to coax out some lovely cherry notes.

92 proof.

A- / $NA (available only to bars) /

Tasting Comparison: Orange Bitters

regans bitters

After aromatic bitters, orange bitters are easily the most commonly called-for bittering agents in cocktails today. There’s also a huge variety of bitters available on the market. Are they any different? Which is best? I put three big bitters brands — there are plenty more, but these are all I had on hand — to the test to see which ones really made the cut.

Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 – A 1990s recreation of Charles Baker’s orange bitters recipe, brought to you by Gary Regan and the Sazerac Company. Tangerine notes on the nose, with clear notes of cardamom and clove-like character on the back end. Orange enough, but with a bracing, Fernet-like bitterness that really lingers. The choice for drinkers looking primarily for a big, bitter punch. 45% abv. A- / $16 per 5 oz. bottle [BUY IT NOW]

Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters – Lighter in color, much sweeter, but more orange-focused than Regan’s, offering sweet tangerine notes up front that fade into cinnamon and clove notes. Quite a bit sweeter than other brands, with an almost candylike edge to them — but I like the way they impart a clear orange character (along with mild bitterness to a cocktail). I like these in punches and other party drinks and probably use them the most. Abv not disclosed. A- / $12 per 4 oz. bottle [BUY IT NOW]

The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters – Interesting nose — light on orange and heavy on notes of coffee, roasted/smoked meat, ginger, and other savory elements. The body is a nice mix of citrus and more savory elements, but they aren’t overwhelmingly bitter. The smoky element is curious, but a bit at odds with the typical usage of orange bitters. 39% abv. B+ / $27 per 200ml bottle [BUY IT NOW]

Bottom line: I prefer Regans’ in more savory cocktails (as in Manhattan variants and other whiskey cocktails) and Fee Brothers in sweeter, fruitier, and simpler ones (like the Casino or an old-school Martini).

Review: Peychaud’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Cocktail Bitters

PeychaudsBarrelAged5ozXThe original Peychaud’s Bitters date back to about 1830. In New Orleans cocktailing, they’re an indispensable part of numerous drinks, including the classic Sazerac Cocktail. Now owner Sazerac (parent company of Buffalo Trace) is launching a version of Peychaud’s with a twist, aging the classic bitters in Sazerac Rye whiskey barrels for 140 days.

I tasted the new barrel-aged Peychaud’s against the classic version, side by side, to see how the duo stack up against one another.

They’re remarkably different products. Classic Peychaud’s offers complex notes of earth, charred nuts, cloves, watermelon rind, licorice root, and charred vegetables, with a distinct, semisweet rhubarb character — particularly on the nose. In contrast, the new Peychaud’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters are less complicated and initiatially, and somewhat counterintuitively, a bit sweeter. They don’t take on the charry woodiness of the wood but rather some of the vanilla and baking spices of the rye. As the bitters hit the palate, that rhubarb turns much more toward cherry fruit, with notes of gingerbread and Christmas spices on the back end.

Of course, despite all the secondary characteristics described above, both expressions are still bitters, and the finish of each is lasting and powerfully representative of the term. Both pair beautifully with whiskey but I have to say that the new whiskey-barrel aged expression lends more of an intense, fruity liveliness to a cocktail. The cherry components particularly stand out, even against the punch of bourbon or rye. No, it won’t ever replace the original, but its presence does make the cocktailer’s arsenal all the more interesting.

35% abv.

A / $17 (5 oz.) /

Review: Breckenridge Bitters

breckenridge bittersMost hear “bitters” and assume Angostura — something that’s used sparingly, by the drop or dash, to give a little something extra to a cocktail.

Breckenridge Bitters — produced by one of our favorite vodka makers — isn’t the same stuff. More in line with Italian amari, this is a bittersweet liqueur designed for sipping straight. A blend of “hand-harvested alpine herbs… ancient bitter roots and spicy dried fruits,” Breck’s Bitters are gold in color and slightly sweet, with a nicely bitter kick on the back end.

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Review: Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry Bitters

woodford reserve spiced cherry bittersI’m not sure why it’s taken so long for a whiskey company to get into the bitters business, but Woodford Reserve has finally opened that door, introducing its first bitters, barrel-aged and spiced cherry-flavored. Crafted in conjunction with Bourbon Barrel Foods, the bitters are specifically designed for use in a Manhattan cocktail (and presumably one with Woodford Reserve Bourbon in it).

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Review: The Bitter Truth Bitters Lineup

Hey Mr. Sheriff, there’s a new gun in town in the bitters category. Called The Bitter Truth (get it?), this brand hails from Germany and now spans eight types of bitters.

The house style is, how shall we put it, bitter. Strong on the bitterness, less of a focus on the fruit or other components of the mix. In fact, The Bitter Truth’s lineup is stronger in the bitterness category than any other bitters brand I’ve tried; I recommend a relatively light hand when mixing drinks with these, but while the overall line has some winners and losers, in the right concentration they can all be pretty good.

We tried six of the eight bottles in the lineup. Comments follow.

The Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters – Very strong, with a root beer attack and a very bitter finish. Angostura is sweeter and easier going, while Fee’s Aromatic has more of a soda pop feel to it. Angostura remains my clear favorite here. B

The Bitter Truth Creole Bitters – A direct alternative to Peychaud’s bitters, and quite similar if you can get the quantity right. Again, they’re considerably more bitter, however, with a sort of burnt aftertaste. B

The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters – Comparable to Fee’s Orange, with a big orange peel character and a strong, bitter finish. B+

The Bitter Truth Lemon Bitters – The biggest departure from the competition: Fee’s is hugely sweet, while The Bitter Truth has an intense citrus peel bitterness. This would be incredibly different in a cocktail — and I actually prefer this one to Fee’s. B+

The Bitter Truth Grapefruit Bitters – Bitter Truth’s version has virtually no grapefruit character to it at all and is mostly forgettable. Fee’s has a good balance of fruit with a bitter edge. C-

The Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole Bitters – Alas, I have no other chocolate bitters for comparison. Interesting hints of chocolate and cinnamon on first blush, then quickly overpowered by a bitter conclusion. Interesting, but not sure where or how I’d use this one. B-

Fee Brothers Old Fashion Bitters vs. Angostura Bitters

Artisanal bitters are all the rage these days, with no producer more hallowed than Fee Brothers. (I rely on their Orange Bitters religiously, so I’m a devotee.)

fee-brothers-old-fashioned-bittersBut I’d never tried Fee’s “Old Fashion Aromatic” Bitters until recently. Angostura’s always worked for me, so why change?

Well today I finally put Fee Old Fashion head to head against its forebear. Flavored with Angostura bark and other aromatics, it’s a clear homage to Angostura, and the aroma on its own is decidedly similar. The big difference: A cinnamon/allspice aroma that’s strong in the Fee but minimal in Angostura.

The cinnamon/allspice character follows through in mixed drinks pretty strongly. It was noticeably present in a Champagne Cocktail (a rather loathsome drink, really), and even stronger in a rye Manhattan. It also sweetened the Manhattan considerably vs. a version I made with Angostura. In the case of the Manhattan, I liked both renditions, but ultimately preferred the one made with Angostura by quite a margin, which was a more balanced drink that hung on to its rye core and wasn’t overwhelmed by spices.

Both bitters are good, but ultimately the original Angostura still has stands as a bar essential. The Fee Brothers will stick around for experimentation — I’m sure there are cocktails out there where it will outclass Angostura, I just haven’t gotten to them yet — but for now it plays second fiddle.