The key to great cocktails

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Two years ago, nearly to the day, I was sitting in the bar of Hotel Monteleone. We were in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter, perched on bar stools revolving slowly beneath the jangling lights and mirrors. Sipping on a Sazerac, I’d just discovered what bitters can do.

In its first foray into print, a ‘cocktail’ was defined as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”. Mixology may have come a long way since 1806, but the notion that bitters are at the heart of a true cocktail hasn’t changed all that much.

Ask a bartender and they’ll tell you that bitters, properly used, are the salt and pepper of the bar cart. Arm yourself with just three types – aromatic, orange and creole, and you’ve the material for a thousand incarnations of that original, vaguely defined drink.

That original Sazerac, with its potent slug of absinthe and beguiling spice of Peychaud’s droppers, (the original creole bitters), still lingers in my taste memory. I was on an adventure with an old friend across the American South – and it’s that nip of sweetly seasoned liquor that stands head and shoulders above every other hop-bomb beer, bourbon shooter and pickleback shot.

When we returned to her home in Dallas after our time on the road, we settled into a nightly routine of plush Cali Zin to chase tumblers of Titos vodka, spiked with Fee Brothers’ Grapefruit bitters. Accordingly, on my return home I founded a collection of little dropper bottles. It ceaselessly grew.

My favourite, now, is the Fee’s whiskey barrel-aged bitters – a hit of cola flavouring without the saccharine sweetness. Either that, or Angostura swirled into plain tonic water for more sober evenings.