Time was, for a mixed drink to be considered a cocktail, it had to contain bitters. And there were dozens of them on the market, orange bitters being the most popular.

Nowadays, about the only brand widely available is Angostura Bitters.

Like all bitters, Angostura is a mixture of the concentrated essences of certain roots, berries and herbs — the exact composition being a closely guarded secret.

As the name suggests, they taste intensely bitter and as such, they shouldn’t be drunk straight. Undiluted, they make Brio Chinotto seem like watered-down Fanta.  Generally, just a couple dashes are added to a cocktail to enhance the overall flavor — they fill in the gaps and add a bit of spiciness to the background.

Think of them as the salt of cocktail mixing. Just as you wouldn’t add so much salt to a soup so that it would taste salty, similarly, you shouldn’t add so much of a bitters to a cocktail to make it actually bitter. Conversely, if you leave salt out of your cooking, your dish will often taste as though some vital constituent has turned fugitive. Leaving the bitters out of a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail will leave you with a similar feeling of inadequacy — as though you’ve been swindled out of a better drink.

While their potency in cocktail mixing is nothing short of amazing, what is most astonishing about Angostura Bitters is how easy they are to come by. Even though nowadays they are only used in a few cocktail recipes and occasionally as an ingredient in cooking, you can pick them up in most any supermarket in Canada.

To the uninitiated, their ever-presence in the fizzy drink aisle is a mystery but I think that I have intuited the secret of their ubiquity. But seeing as it’s a secret, I will save it for after the jump.

Don’t spread this around too much but bitters are 45 per cent alcohol by volume. More than most vodkas, gins or whiskeys. And each bottle contains three and a half ounces of bitters. That’s two and a third shots of booze.

And yet, for some reason, they aren’t controlled like other spirits and thus their sale isn’t restricted to liquor stores.

And that means anyone can buy them.

With that in mind, allow me to posit their application in modern society, and thus their enduring popularity, by way of this illustrative and completely fictitious cocktail….

Supermarket Parking Lot Cocktail
1 bottle Angostura Bitters
1 large cola slushy-style drink
Pour Bitters into slushy. Stir vigorously.

It’s not a sophisticated tall drink, I grant you; but, at least you can bring it with you anywhere.