The very first celebrity bartender in the very first cocktail book made much use of the enigmatic “Bogart’s bitters”. The legendary status of Jerry Thomas and The Bar-tenders Guide (1862) has made the acquisition of these bitters something of a Quest for the Holy Grail for modern day cocktail archaeologists. The first hurdle was that for reasons unclear Thomas had written “Bogart’s” instead of Boker’s in his first edition and it remained uncorrected until the 1887 edition which was published after his death. The second problem is that Boker’s Bitters, like so many others, were killed off by prohibition in the 1920s making Johann Böker’s much loved bitters a mere 100 year flash-in-the-pan. Attempts to recreate Boker’s have been many and varied but largely hindered by a lack of any surviving (potable) samples or (reliable) recipes. At least until German bitters manufacturers The Bitter Truth managed to acquire an unopened bottle dating from around 1900. After much scientific analysis and tasting they reverse engineered a new version which they believe is as close to the original as is possible. They chose to go with the name Jerry T mistakenly used (which I imagine is just to head off any potential copyright challenge) but chose a bottle and packaging that pays homage to the original product. Nicely played fellas! But did they nail it? Let’s find out:
The Bitter Truth’s Bogart’s Bitters come in an elegant 350ml bottle that closely resembles the one they dug up from God-knows-where which makes it almost twice the size of their normal range, which at 200ml are already larger than much of the competition. Therefore you are getting lot of bitters for your €24. It has a cork closure which is classy but unusual and therefore requires decanting into your own dasher bottle which may be an inconvenience for some but leads me to conclude that the product is largely intended for sale to cocktail bars. I’d like to see a smaller (dasher) bottle for the home bartender who doesn’t need a 5 year supply but perhaps that will come with time. The Truth boys have done a spiffing job on the paper labels which look thoroughly Victorian whilst sneaking in the necessary modern data. The packaging also includes a fun little booklet with some recipes from Mr Thomas’ original tome which, of course, is handily well out of copyright. At 42.1% ABV we have a bitters in the right alcohol range for this type of aromatic bitters. Once freed from the confines of the very dark reddish-brown bottle we find the bitters to be even darker: something akin to the very darkest kind of chocolate – that 99% cocoa solids stuff that’s almost too bitter even for your advanced palate. Now, when we taste it – a drop on the back of the hand being the way to go with bitters – we do actually get a very deep chocolatey lingering bitterness as our first impression. There’s some spices in there too: cinnamon certainly, a little clove and more that are difficult to put a finger on. This is very nice, deep, warming, dark and with a long finish where the chocolate fades to leave the spices dancing on your tongue. While some modern bitters are more like flavourings that true bitters there is no such problem here; I sense immediately that Bogart’s will excel in the task of countering the sweetness of the teaspoon of sugar in an Old Fashioned. There’s a lot to like here and the feeling of authenticity is, while almost impossible to prove, rather convincing. Put to the test in an Old Fashioned three dashes of Bogart’s delivered a deep, rich and balanced drink, easily countering the teaspoon of simple syrup and the slight inherent sweetness of the Buffalo Trace. No better or worse than using Angostura just different. Woodier, darker, less familiar.
While firmly in the aromatic bitters category I do have to make clear that, in my option, Bogart’s bitters can never be a direct replacement for Angostura bitters which have become unshakably installed in a wide range of (comparatively) modern cocktails. Angostura, which even predate the original Boker’s by a few years have simply gained too much ground in the 100 years since prohibition purged almost all the competition and are, by any measure, a superb product. However I highly recommend Bitter Truth Bogart’s to those who are not averse to having a few different bitters on hand and it is now my belief that the serious cocktailista should have Angostura, Regan’s orange, Peychaud’s and Bogart’s on their shelf, using the other’s where called for by name or tradition but reaching for the Bogart’s the rest of the time. Therefore, with a few marks deducted for the large bottle and (understandable) inability to supplant Angostura, The Bitter Truth Bogart’s Bitters scores a straight: