I recently came across a formula for a variety of bitters made with whisky, in Isobel Johnstone’s The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, an old Scottish recipe book first published in 1826. When we think of bitters, it is Angostura that usually first comes to mind. Either that, you might think of all the glamorous amari that come from Italy, such as Campari or Fernet Branca (which are so fantastically bitter it is amazing anyone drinks them at all). We don’t, however, usually associate whisky with bitters, unless a smart cocktail is involved. These whisky bitters are meant to be drunk in their own right, so are more like the Italian bitter drinks.
We are familiar with the idea of mulled wine and hot toddy’s, however, as far as whisky goes I have never come across it being infused with so many aromatic and bitter plants over a long period of time. In what she describes as ‘an excellent tonic’, Johnstone calls for exotic sounding things like gentian root, calamus aromaticus, and snakeroot, as well as some more familiar ingredients like juniper berries.
In the course of my research into this ‘tonic’, I discovered it was quite common in the nineteenth century in Scottish households to have a bottle of these bitters on the sideboard. Dr Jamieson explains in his Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), how bitters were ‘a dram much used in the highlands as a stomachic, made from an infusion of aromatic herbs and whisky’. This reminds us that many of the European aperitifs and digestifs we enjoy today have their origins in medicine. The numerous aromatic, and often obscure, plants with which these concoctions are made are not only selected for flavour, but for their medicinal qualities too, for many of these drinks were originally created by pharmacists.
Sir Archibald Geikie, in his travels around the Isle of Skye, recorded in his book Scottish Reminiscences (1904) that he was offered ‘some acetates? This last I conjectured to be a decoction of bitter roots in whisky, often to be found on Highland sideboards in the morning.’ This was clearly regarded as a propitious way to start the day.
Osgood Mackenzie’s account shows us how families may have had their own recipe for bitters. He reminisces in his book A Hundred Years in the Highlands (1921), how his father always had a bottle of whisky bitters on the sideboard:
‘On the sideboard there always stood before breakfast, a bottle of whisky, smuggled of course, with plenty of camomile flowers, bitter orange-peel, and juniper berries in it—‘bitters’ we called it—and of this he had a wee glass always before we sat down to breakfast, as a fine stomachic.’
Today we wouldn’t dream of starting the day with these whisky bitters. Most people would think it barbaric to infuse their precious whisky with so many pungent smelling ingredients. However, this is part of the history of whisky.
The principal ingredients used in these bitters are juniper and gentian. Both have been highly regarded for centuries for their medicinal qualities as aids to digestive problems. Juniper is of course the better known of the two for being the essential flavouring in gin. Juniper grows wild in Scotland so it is an appropriate addition. Gentian root, although more obscure, is one of the main ingredients in Angostura bitters. It is also used in many Italian amari, the most well known being Aperol. Gentian root is also used in the French aperitif Suze.
Another unusual ingredient in the mix was what Jonhstone called Calamus aromaticus, what is today classified as Acorus calamus, and is more commonly known as sweet flag (relatively speaking of course). The plant has been used for thousands of years all over Europe. Its leaves have been used in perfumery for their fragrant, orange like scent. The root of the plant has been used, and still is in certain parts of the world, for its medicinal properties. Again it is used as an aid for digestive problems.
The only ingredient I couldn’t find was snakeroot. What sounds ominous is in fact highly toxic so the powers that be strongly advise against ingesting it; despite the fact it was once commonly used to stimulate the appetite.
It is interesting to see how the flavourings affect the whisky. At first there is only an overriding smell of juniper. Later the juniper subsides and the other ingredients come through, making the whisky smell more woody and wonderfully aromatic, and that familiar smell which I now know to be gentian root. As for the taste, it has a strong, unsurprisingly, bitter taste. To me, these whisky bitters crave something sweet, such as honey, but then that is turning it into a cocktail, rather than a strong beneficial tonic.
Notes on Original Recipe for Whisky Bitters
Johnstone calls for some ingredients to be measured by the drachm, which is an old measurement used by apothecaries and equates to an eighth of an apothecary’s ounce. The apothecary’s ounce is slightly more than the imperial ounce so it is this measurement I have used to convert Johnstone’s recipe.
700ml bottle of blended whisky (I used Whyte and Mackay, avoid peaty or smoky whisky)
16g juniper berries
12g gentian root
2g coriander seed
2g orange peel (dried)
2g calamus aromaticus (Acorus calamus)
1g cardamom seeds
Pound all the ingredients together in a large mortar and pestle to rough them up a bit. Failing that crush them under a hammer or rolling pin. The gentian root and calamus are hard so you can leave them out of the mortar, just make sure they are cut into small pieces. Put the spices into a large glass bottle you can seal. Pour in the whisky and give the bottle a good shake. Let it stand in a cool dark place for 8 – 10 days. After this time strain the whisky of the flavourings through a paper coffee filter and re-bottle it.