Regans' Orange Bitters No.6 -- finally back in stock!!!
In the early 1990s Mardee and I were living in a loft apartment on West 28th Street in Manhattan, and we were having difficulties finding orange bitters to suit our taste, so I decided to set about making my own. It was a bit of a lark. An adventure. Something that sounded like it might be fun.
I found a recipe for orange bitters in The Gentleman's Companion: An Exotic Drinking Book, by Charles H. Baker, Jr., the well-traveled bon-vivant who detailed his trips to various countries and bars around the world, reporting on the drinks he sipped, and the people he met. His recipe called for orange peel, cardamom, caraway, and coriander, and it also supplied me with the methodology required to make the stuff, so I set off to the Village to procure the ingredients. We also had to make a run into Connecticut to get hold of some grain alcohol which, for some stupid reason, can’t be sold legally in New York.
Strolling around a store that supplies witches, warlocks, and gremlins with their potions and what-not, I found everything I needed to make Baker’s formula, and I added some gentian, cinchona, and quassia to the mix for good measure. Add a little depth, I thought.
Mardee called me the Weekend Alchemist as I played around with these weird and wonderful ingredients. Jars filled with differing amounts of ingredients littered our apartment, and I tended to them every day. Picking them up, shaking them, checking the color, and occasionally dipping my finger in there to see how they were progressing.
It took a while, but on the fourth try, I came up with a formula that worked well. Very well, in fact. We published the recipe in The Book of Bourbon.
It took us about a year to use up our first batch of Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 4, and when we made a second batch we realized we’d screwed up big time. They were as bitter as all hell. Had to add tons and tons of caramel before they were palatable. Where had I gone wrong?
It probably had something to do with the freshness, or the intensity, of the cinchona, but whatever it was, we knew we had to work on this recipe some more. Enter Mark Brown, president and C.E.O. of The Sazerac Company of New Orleans. The same outfit that brings us Peychaud’s Bitters.
We bumped into Mark, a fine guy if ever there was one, at the Bourbon Festival, and I asked him if he might be interested in working with us to develop a commercial brand of orange bitters. Mark’s always up for a wheeze, so after he thought about it for a few seconds he said, “Sure, let’s give it a go.” Mark is such a wag. Now the boffins at Sazerac entered the picture.
A team of scientist types headed by the wonderful Stanley Schwam, who came out of retirement for this particular project, set to work on the recipe, and it wasn’t too long before we had a product we all liked. The TTB (Tax & Trade Bureau) liked it too. We sent them a sample for their approval, and they wrote back saying that the bitters were so darned good, that they were refusing to let us release them. The TTB can be like that.
The thing about bitters is that they’re classified as “non-potable” alcohol. This means that nobody is likely to swig back a shot or two of the product, even though a couple of dashes in a mixed drink renders the cocktail eminently potable. Apparently the team at the TTB swigged a few shots of our bitters and liked them immensely, so it was back to the drawing board for Stanley’s team. They had to make the bitters taste really really bad so that we could sell them. Sounds strange, huh? True, though.
On the sixth attempt they produced some orange bitters that suited our palates for cocktailian uses, and was deemed “non-potable” by the TTB. Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 was born.
So there you have it. That’s how we came up with this delightful formula. And when you buy Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6, I’d like you to remember that you’ll be lining the pockets of yours truly with some much needed cash. How much cash? Therein lies a story.
While the bitters were being developed, Sazerac and I had to come to some kind of agreement money-wise, and Mark asked me how much money I was expecting to make from this venture. I told him that since he knew the ins and outs of the profits on bitters--Peychaud’s sell like wild fire--he should formulate a deal wherein I would end up with, oh, say, a couple of hundred grand a year. Sounded reasonable enough to me . . .
“We can do that,” Mark told me. “But only if you’re willing to be paid in lire.”
The Sazerac Company is a fair outfit, though, so we’re all happy with the deal we signed. And the bitters are worth every cent of the retail price. Hope you agree.