As I set out to write an appraisal of the orange bitters market, I turned to the two guys you kind of have to interview if you’re writing about bitters: author Brad Thomas Parsons, who wrote the trailblazing book Bitters in 2011; and bartender Sother Teague, who runs the New York bitters bar, Amor y Amargo.
“Angostura, Peychaud’s and an orange bitters make up the holy trinity of bitters,” says Parsons. “When I go to other bars, I see Angostura, Peychaud’s and an orange bitters,” says Teague.
An orange bitters. “An,” not “the.” No brand. No name.
More than ten years into the bitters boom, there is still no leading brand in the orange bitters category—not, at least, in the way Angostura indisputably dominates the pack of aromatic bitters. Instead, we have what Parsons estimates to be more than two dozen brands on the market, including Angostura Orange Bitters, Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6, Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters, Fee Brothers Gin Barrel-Aged Orange Bitters, The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters, Bittercube Orange Bitters, Scrappy’s Seville Orange Bitters, Miracle Mile Orange Bitters and many, many more with even less name recognition.
This is quite a shift in affairs from 15 years ago when there was only one brand on the market and you had to play Sir Henry Morton Stanley to find it. Back then, amateur cocktail historian Ted Haigh located a company called Fee Brothers in Rochester, New York, that still made them. But he had to call Jack Fee, the company’s second-generation owner, to get ahold of a bottle. Haigh had a good reason to want to lay his cocktail-shaking fingers on the stuff. Orange bitters were asked for in many of the old drink recipes he wanted to make, including early versions of the vaunted Martini.
He wasn’t alone. Fellow historian, and former bartender, Gary Regan wanted orange bitters so badly that he began whipping up batches himself, using the recipe found in Charles H. Baker Jr.’s 1946 book, The Gentleman’s Companion, as a starting point. That juice was passed around from bar to bar for years (Dale DeGroff used an early version at the Rainbow Room) until, in 2005, Regan entered into a deal with the Sazerac Company to sell it commercially. Sazerac considered the arrangement a gamble.
“I think, at that time, we just had Peychaud’s Bitters, which is such a beloved brand,” says Jana Ritter, a brand manager at Sazerac. “That was a big risk for us. It doesn’t sound like it now, but it was. I think the deal was about having an expert in an area where we didn’t have an expert,” meaning Regan.
Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 was immediately adopted by cocktail bars. After that came the deluge, with many other entrepreneurs following Gary Regan’s lead.
Regans’ appears to be the top seller among orange bitters. Liquor companies don’t like to release sales numbers, though Ritter allowed that sales of Regans’ “continue to grow.” Regan, meanwhile, said that 1,000 cases of the bitters are sold every month, as opposed to just 56 cases during the entire first year.
Many people also consider it to be the quality leader of the category. And yet Regans’ is rarely mixed into a drink alone. Instead, bartenders frequently combine it with a second brand of orange bitters, looking to balance out its heavy cardamom note. In the early years of its release in the late ’00s, that was often Fee Brothers—a combination so widespread that it earned its own bar-world portmanteau, “Feegans’.” (Regan said he doesn’t mind this practice in the least.)
“Someone could still come up and become the Heinz ketchup of orange bitters.”
In 2008, it looked as if the orange bitters category might finally get its own supreme leader. That year, the mighty Angostura machine released its own take—its first new bitters in 184 years. Strangely, however, the brand never really became a go-to product for bars and consumers in the way the standard Angostura bitters did.
“I’m definitely surprised by that,” says Teague. “I’m surprised it didn’t leap to the front. But I’m surprised by a lot of things Angostura has done recently. The product isn’t that strong. It seems to me that when you have a name that’s such an icon, in the eyes of the consumer, they can see that you’re playing on that name.”
According to Parsons and Teague, the reason why the field is still so thick with contenders may be because the orange bitters style disappeared for so long. When it was finally reborn, it allowed both bitters makers and bartenders to start over and write a new story for the ingredient.
“We want to be unique,” says Teague, speaking of his fellow bartenders. “They know they’re stuck with Angostura and Peychaud’s because of historical reasons. There’s no recent history on orange bitters, so they can do their own thing.”
Parsons agrees. “The orange category lends itself to more experimentation with bartenders landing on a favorite brand or style more than they would with the aromatic category, where they typically reach for Angostura,” he says.
According to Ritter, this creativity has led to a gradual change in the application of orange bitters. When Regans’ and other brands first appeared, bartenders were eager to use them in old gin drinks like the Pegu Club and Alaska. Lately, however, they are often mixed it with whiskey drinks, such as new twists on the Manhattan and Old-Fashioned.
And so the second act of orange bitters continues to unfold. Regan thinks that, eventually, some of the new labels will peel away. “I don’t think that there can be too many brands on the market, but not many brands can be out front,” he says, “so I expect we’ll see some brand names disappearing in the next few years.”
Still, people have been saying that for a while now, and yet the shelves continue to groan with orange bitters, with no one giving up the fight. Teague thinks the opposite could happen, with a few more new entries entering the fray, hoping to become that orange bitters for all people and all drinks.
“It’s a category that’s been explored, but not exploited yet,” says Teague. “I feel like someone could still crack the code. Someone could still come up and become the Heinz ketchup of orange bitters.”