Soda With Bitters

The Awl’s holiday series on flavors and spices.

Image: Farther Along via Flickr

Last winter, I embarked on my first Drynuary with a mix of shock and self-righteousness. I was thirty-fucking-five years old and I seriously, SERIOUSLY, couldn’t remember going an entire month without drinking. By Day 5, my husband told me, I started reminding him of the straight-edge kids from high school. But, I was really onto something. Wasn’t it crazy that we configured our lives around the consumption of alcohol, the same way that we configured our living rooms around television sets? Wasn’t it odd that we were always a little inebriated around friends and coworkers? How could we tell who we really were if we spent so much time in an altered state? He suggested I listen to some Youth of Today and opened a beer.

Even though I wasn’t drinking, I was determined to keep up with my social obligations, which meant I often found myself in bars, explaining to people that I had sworn off booze for the month. Around Day 12, I found myself in that particular circle of hell known as Hotbird on a Friday night. It was here that my friend Nadja introduced me to her coping mechanism for her own Drynuary: seltzer with a dash of bitters.(Bitters are also 44.7 percent alcohol, so a dash is either technically disqualifying for the “dry” part of Drynuary, or a symbolic way of partaking without partaking. It’s between you and your Oprah.) The idea was, she explained, was to, more or less, fool yourself by ordering a signature cocktail, which conferred a sense of agency, rather than a sense of deprivation. It was quirky, it was refreshing, and it was delicious.

The classic bitters in most bars are Angostura bitters, which have a delightful and convoluted history, assembled here entirely from this Wikipedia entry. Its ingredients are “water, 44.7% ethanol, gentian, herbs and spices.” Gentian is a beautiful blue flower. The “spices” are a secret proprietary blend. A German doctor working in Venezuela came up with the recipe and started making them in a town called Angostura, which means ‘narrow’ in Spanish. The name of the town is a reference to the narrowing of the Orinoco River, which is home to the Amazon river dolphin and the giant river otter. There’s also a plant in South America called Angostura trifoliata, which is used in other bitters recipes, but not, ironically, in Angostura bitters. The label is strangely oversized because of a miscommunication among the doctor’s sons who took over the business after his death.

Despite these Amazonian origins, Angostura bitters taste, to my immigrant mouth, distinctly American. The aromatics echo baking—cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, licorice—an herbaceous concentrate of pie with a bit of sweetness. In a glass of seltzer, the bitters add a lovely garnet tinge, and a perfumey detour from the sharp fizz of the carbonation. You can sip it, thinking of otters and Amazonian rivers and lose yourself in a veritable jungle, while your drunk friends yammer on about the latest sexual harassment revelations.

As a former bartender, my first experience with bitters involved mixing ill-proportioned Manhattans and Old Fashioneds at a shitty bar on Lower East Side. Who ordered cocktails at a sports bar anyway? And what was I doing there? Mostly I used bitters as a hiccup remedy: a slice of lemon, a sprinkle of sugar, and a dash of bitters worked like a charm on countless tipsy patrons.

Now, ordering seltzer and bitters I was forced to confront the same inexpert service that I’d provided to my customers. Some bartenders interpreted my request for a dash of bitters with a “more is more” approach and delivered seltzers mixed with a shot of bitters. Although, maybe, they were extending me a strange professional courtesy, since a shot of bitters is a popular version of the “bartender’s handshake,” a sort of ritual shared by the drink-slinging community. But every once in a while, it was as it should be. The bartender would fill a glass with seltzer, set it on the bar, and in front of my eyes, dispense, with a flick of the wrist, the perfect dash. And then the crimson would swirl among the bubbles, like a puff of smoke.

For the rest of the month, and in the year since, I’ve ordered dozens of seltzers with bitters. Some time after I wrapped up Drynuary, I embarked on another month-long exercise in self-torture: the Whole 30. (Yes, I know, technically bitters aren’t compliant, I don’t care.) A few months later, I had another extended episode of insomnia and stopped drinking to try and fix the problem.

The first seltzer and bitters of a dry month feels like a secret oath. I promise that I won’t drink for a month. I promise to be better to myself. I promise to be generous to others. (I promise to invent better essay endings than this classic three-beat bullshit.) And, the bitters filter through the seltzer, while hiss of the carbonation whisper, “I’ll be there for you.” And, then Bon Jovi starts to sing.