Abbott’s Bitters Quest

by on April 06, 2012

Tasting history is one of the more enjoyable aspects of classic cocktails, however many of those original ingredients have been lost to time. Abbott's bitters is one of those ingredients, and without it we really don't know how the original Manhattan tasted. Sure, there are those rare vintage bottles of Abbott's bitters floating around on eBay, but those bottles are at least 70 years old and have undergone some serious aging. The extreme aging basically creates a new flavour, but how did the original Abbott's taste? The big question is: can the original Abbott's recipe be found? I think so.

Back in August 2009, while digging through some old papers, I stumbled upon a bitters recipe that had an association with a person named Abbott. Obviously that piqued my curiosity so I began digging further. This recipe included a specific method for barrel aging, which was something that makers of Abbott's bitters did, as well as other clues. When a few puzzle pieces fit together, how can a person not pursue it?

At first the ingredient profile didn't look like a match for the modern Abbott's tasting notes many people have published. But knowing I might have something interesting, I decided to break out my chemistry skills and do some theoretical aging.

Food scientists have spent lots of money trying to decipher what happens to their products as they sit on a grocery store shelf. This, not surprisingly, is called "shelf-stability". Everything ages, and the more complex the product the more changes are likely to happen over a shorter period of time. Distilled products, or products that contain alcohol generally age slower. For complex bitters changes will depend on the stability of the botanical oils in the product.

For example, the Abbott's recipe I discovered contained a number of spices containing anise oil, which most people recognize as liquorice. Anyone who has tasted the vintage bottles of Abbott's wouldn't put anise at the top of the flavour list, but it is there. However, in this old recipe the anise oil component is prominent. How do we reconcile the difference?

Easy, food scientists have done all the hard work for us. After a little research I discovered that anise oil is very unstable, and readily breaks down when exposed to light. The oil decomposes at a rate of 1% per month in a clear bottle at room temperature. Exposure of anise oil to air causes polymerization, and some oxidation also takes place with the formation of anisaldehyde and anisic acid. Sealed samples of anise oil show odour changes within 12 months if stored above 5°C. Hydrolysis (reaction with water) is also an issue with anise oil stability.

Some of the anise oil decomposition products, and aroma's, are as follows:

Anise Ketone: sweet, fruity, spicy, balsam
Anisaldehyde (para): sweet, powdery, mimosa, floral, hawthorn, balsam
Anisaldehyde (ortho): sweet, powdery, hawthorn, vanilla, coumarin, almond
p-Anisic Acid: putrid, sweet, cadaverous

Other decomposition products may include linalool and euganol (clove) amongst many others.

For the astute Abbott's trackers, you may notice flavours that are present in the vintage bottles, coumarin being an often debated one.

A note on p-Anisic Acid (4-methoxybenzoic acid or draconic acid)
Obviously "cadaverous" isn't something people associate with good cocktails, but anisic acid has long been used in the perfume industry as a fixative. A fixative is a stabilizing or preservative agent which helps to retain aromas. In the case of bitters, a natural fixative will help keep the potent aromas front and centre. It is a good bet that the intensity often described in vintage Abbott's bottles is in part due to a naturally occurring fixative. Any anise flavoured spirit will also have naturally occurring levels of anisic acid.

So what does this mean?

Well, it means I am actively pursuing the recreation of this potential Abbott's recipe. I have already created a two litre test batch and those who have tasted original Abbott's have given it the thumbs up, but more on that in another post. There are more pressing issues, including procuring one extremely hard to get ingredient, which may actually be the reason Abbott's had to reformulate their bitters at one point.

The reason it has taken me this long to even get a test batch made was the near impossible task of finding a commercial source of a rare bark, and trust me I've looked. However, the bartending and drinks community is awesome and Jesse Card (St. Croix Libation Society) was able to search his island and find the magical tree that produces this bark. He also provided me with the small sample needed to make the test batch. Because of the positive response from the select group of taste testers, I'm taking the next step and flying down to the US Virgin Islands on May 8th to go peel bark off a few trees with Jesse, so I can produce a larger batch. This is going to be some expensive tree bark.

Stay tuned here or via Twitter (@dsoneil) for further updates as I will be shedding more light on this recipe in the near future. You want artisanal bitters? It doesn't get more hands on than this.

The Abbott's Bitters are now available! Get some: Abbott's Bitters

Twitter Updates

RT @smultronanja: Everything in food is science. The only subjective part is when you eat it. @altonbrown
Using a fruit press to extract honey. :: #photo
@ryanfeeley the kit is because people like to try the Acid Phosphate as well, so I bundle and discount.
@ryanfeeley you can also get the bitters at BYOB in Toronto on Queen Street. (saves shipping)
.@ryanfeeley the Abbott's bitters are excellent. Not sold out yet, but getting closer. Available here:
"A Whisky Lover's Obsession. Finding whiskies that hold their value" via @BBC