Mx Monday – Bitter Comparison I

For 95% of bar goers, “bitters” are an unknown substance. And of that 5% who have discovered the secret treasure, probably less than 1% actually know bitters as anything beyond that mis-wrapped bottle with a yellow cap crusted to the top with sticky brown goo.

Mixology Monday - Bitters

Then again, those few people probably have a blog and are writing for this edition of Mixology Monday, being quaintly hosted by A Dash of Bitters. It is for you that I delve into a topic I have avoided for some time now. Not for want of writing, but due to the great spell that the grand tiki gods had on me all summer. By some amazing feat, I have not imbibed from the tiki mug for nearly a week, and I feel ready to approach the chilly months ahead with the dark allure that first birthed Kaiser Penguin.

Angostura Bitters vs. Fee Brothers Aromatic Bitters

Before I would determine which bitters fit best with the flavors of the Manhattan and the Fancy Gin Cocktail, I needed to see what tastes and aromas they would bring to the table on their own. I have employed my fine lady, Gretchen, to assist me with the tests. Gretchen is a phenomenal cook and baker of magic. She is known among friends as a genius cookie baker and has turned ingredients such as rosemary, baked beans, and even mustard, into succulent chewy cookies that effectively taste like the ingredient, yet are delicious.

On the other hand, she has no taste for cocktails. Although I’ve found a few that please her, like the Corpse Reviver #2 and the Mojito, she falls pretty nearly directly in line with Charles H. Baker Jr’s view of the female imbiber. She describes cocktails that I craft in terms that would be more fitting in a men’s locker room (e.g. “This tastes a bit like sweaty gym socks soaked in pinesol, then burned.”). For that very reason, I always have her taste my creations for the amusing descriptions. But when tasked with employing her critical nose and taste buds, she is a scientific marvel. I won’t denote which comments are mine and which are Gretchen’s; you’ll know.

Angostura Bitters

Ingredients: An aromatic preparation of water, alcohol, gentian and vegetable flavoring extractives and vegetable coloring matter.

Aroma: Orange peels, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg

Flavor: The goop that’s left in the bottom of a pot of mulled cider

Fee Brothers Aromatic Bitters

Ingredients: Angostura bark and spice flavors, citrus oil and gentian in a solution of water, alcohol and glycerine, and caramel color.

Aroma: Red hots, fireballs, the inside of a box of hot tamales.

Flavor: At first, redhots, then like you bit into a Tylenol.

On to the drinks!


  • 2oz Bourbon (I used Buffalo Trace)
  • 1oz Sweet Vermouth (I used Martini and Rossi)
  • 1 dash Angostura or Fee’s Aromatic Bitters
  • orange peel and maraschino cherry, for garnish

Stir with crushed ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish.

Angostura Bitters
The aroma is almost completely masked by the orange peel, and all the flavors meld together forming… well, nothing special. It’s good – I would drink it if served it, but I was left wishing for the kick of cloves.

Fee’s Aromatic Bitters
“It tastes like Christmas.” Clovey, orangey, dark. This was a completely different drink, and the only difference was the bitters. They brought out the hidden notes of the bourbon so fashionably.

Fancy Gin Cocktail

  • 2 dashes simple syrup
  • 1 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 dashes orange curacao (I used Bols – I know… I know… Marie Brizard is having production issues)
  • 2oz gin (I used Bombay regular)
  • lemon twist

Stir (or shake) with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish.

From: The Craft of the Cocktail, Dale Degroff

Angostura Bitters
The bitters helped to craft a sweet orange extract aroma, yet the flavor was simple. It was like fresh water, really cutting the gin taste, yet leaving just the right amount. It was glorious.

Fee’s Aromatic Bitters
Cinnamon and cloves flourished in taste and aroma resulting in a rounded sweet and soft cocktail. Neither of these was the clear winner, but both are well worth trying.

Fee Brother’s West Indian Orange Bitters vs. Regans’ Orange Bitters No 6

As usual, I got a bit ambitious in this comparison and decided to explore the mysteries of orange bitters. Fee Brothers and Regan were up against each other in a fight for the Old Fashioned. But first, the facts.

Fee Brother’s West Indian Orange Bitters

Ingredients: Prepared from water, glycerine, alcohol, oil of bitter orange terpeneless, and other natural flavors.

Aroma: 1 million orange hard candies, pleasantly medicinal.

Flavor: “Good until you swallow.” A burst of sweet orange then bitter pith

Regans’ Orange Bitters No 6

Ingredients: water, alcohol, bitter orange extract, herbs & caramel

Aroma: Very complex. Like the Iron Chef ingredient was oranges.

Flavor: “It burned my tongue – It’s burning! My taste buds melted.” Surprisingly not very orangey.

Old Fashioned

  • 1 3/4oz bourbon
  • 1/4oz dark brown sugar syrup
  • 2 dashes Fee Brother’s or Regans’ Orange bitters
  • lemon peel and maraschino cherry for garnish

Just go watch Brilliant Cocktail’s joyous description of the method.

Source: Brilliant Cocktails

Regans’ Orange Bitters
Sweet but with an acid orangeyness and a bit of a chemical aftertaste. Not bad, but not what I’m looking for in an Old Fashioned.

Fee’s Orange Bitters
Fee’s was made for this drink. The orange flavors were well-rounded, sweet, and creamy. This is quite a smooth cocktail.

Now the most important part. What are your favorite brands? Did our kitchen of science get something wrong?

And finally, I vowed I would never touch on topics other than cocktails on my blog, but Paul over at Cocktail Chronicles has motivated me. If you’re a gamer, buy a Nintendo Wii this Christmas. If you’re not a gamer, at least go to the store and sword fight with some of the employees. You’ll know what I mean if you check it out.

8 Responses to “Mx Monday – Bitter Comparison I”

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8 Comments to “ Mx Monday – Bitter Comparison I”
  1. PaulNo Gravatar says:

    Rick — you’re alive! Good to see you back at our little monthly party. I, too, have put aside the tiki mug (well, mostly) and have embarked on a great journey of brown, warming spirits. More to the point, my house is a total rye fiesta right now. Now you’ve got me thinking about Manhattans…..

  2. AndyNo Gravatar says:

    It may or may not sound odd, but try combinations of bitters. My most common recipe for a Manhattan is 2:1 rye to vermouth with 1 dash Angostura and 2 dashes Fees. I like the flavor of Fees but I don’t typically feel it has sufficient backbone for something robust and hearty like a Manhattan. A dash of Angostura provides, and cuts a bit into the slightly sweeter character of the Fees.


  3. RickNo Gravatar says:

    I was expecting great disagreement over my tasting results. Is everyone’s palette identical to mine? I doubt it. What are your favorite bitters for the Manhattan, Fancy Gin, and Old Fashioned?

  4. AndyNo Gravatar says:

    After much experimentation (still ongoing, of course) I have come full circle back to the Angostura. While it is not the best aromatic bitters for every drink, I feel that it is vindicated as the world’s most distributed bar product and as the most famous cocktail bitters in history. I often find that when using alternative bitters, esp the Fee’s OFB, as noted above, I add at least a tiny bit of Angostura to give it some depth. I guess you could say that I use other bitters, esp Fee’s, as an accent to the Angostura, not a replacement. Now a caveat: I almost never do this with Peychaud’s, since it has such a vastly different flavor profile than other aromatic bitters (unless, of course, called for in the recipe, a la Vieux Carre). Also, while I am still experimenting with the Bitter Truth aromatic bitters, I often use them solo as well, though their low proof means that the flavor (while delicious) is not as concentrated as it could be.

    As for orange bitters, I have in addition to the ones you list here, the Hermes from Japan and the Bitter Truth from Germany, though I use the domestic products far more for reasons of economy. That said, since opening my first bottle of Regan’s I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have used Fee’s Orange Bitters. It’s still useful to have around, to mess with here and there, but it lacks complexity, which Regan’s has in spades. Of course, if the complexity was too much, one could always use half of each in a drink, or whatever. As for the elementary staples of the cocktail world, ie the Martini, Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, etc, all of these are extremely simple drinks, ingredient-wise, which is why I feel that they must use the best possible ingredients to realise their full potential. Case in point: a Manhattan made with Bourbon is a fine and tasty drink, but made with rye it’s life-changing. Bitters is perhaps the most important ingredient in each of these drinks.

    All that said, my overall feelings on bitters in a particular drink is sort of how I feel about gin: there is no ‘best’ one, it’s simply whichever one YOU like the best. That one is the best. They are so different that personal tastes must be taken into account. Anyway I didn’t quite intend to write this much. I really must get my own blog to have a place of my own to write this type of thing. Soon!


  5. RobertNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the great post. The “flavor” descriptions are priceless. Now I’m jonesing for a Manhattan.

  6. MariaNo Gravatar says:

    I think you might be interested in adding a Pink Gin comparison to your bitters project. An ancient British drink, wherein you coat the glass with bitters (the inside, not the outside) and add gin. Originally room-temp, which I actually like for taste and aroma, but you can certainly chill the gin first (stirred briefly, rather than shaken– you don’t want it diluted). I’m a Plymouth fancier, but recently had one with Tanqueray which was lovely– the bitters really moderated the piney quality of the Tanqueray, so I can now say that I’d consider T. for something other than a G&T.

    I’ve got Fees bitters, so will experiment later today. I’ve only used Angostura, which I love.

    I was in Virginia in April, and ordered a Pink Gin, which was as much a mystery to the waiter as (apparently) to the bartender. When the drink arrived, I was mystified by the strange shade of “pink,” and as soon as I tasted it, realized why– it was Peychaud’s! And no, they didn’t HAVE Angostura. I eventually rather enjoyed it, especially after I’d squeezed a wedge of lemon into it, creating a new cocktail (albeit one I never plan to have again).

  7. RickNo Gravatar says:

    The pink gin is quite tasty, and I’ve seen enough recipes that it may be worth a recipe comparison. I would, of course, have to test many gins to find the best combination, but I think I’m up to the task. I’ve never had it anything but space-dust cold, and I’m somewhat frightened to change that. Thoughts?

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