As a category, cocktail bitters are both venerable and novel, familiar and curious. While there are a select few that have stood the test of time uninterrupted (Angostura and Peychaud's have maintained an unbroken lineage), many bitters being (re)invented today are throwbacks to styles from the era when bitters were thought of as medicine. Consider the case of celery bitters.
Celery bitters have been produced since the 19th century by a range of bitters-makers, but they never achieved the prominence of, say, aromatic or orange bitters. There aren't a ton of classic cocktail recipes that call for celery bitters by name. (There's the Celery Sour, made with equal parts celery bitters, lemon juice, and pineapple syrup circa 1917, but there's no sign this drink ever really caught the public's imagination.)
However, the recent bitters renaissance has seen a proliferation of celery bitters, and in short order, bartenders have created a variety of cocktails calling for the stuff. Perhaps it's the rise of picklebacks and savory cocktails that's responsible for the return of celery bitters, or just the inherent curiosity of the modern cocktail movement, but it seems that celery bitters aren't going away any time soon.
Celery bitters have such a distinctive flavor that they're a little difficult to deploy correctly, let alone frequently. But when they work, they can be utterly transcendent.
Celery bitters lend an enticingly vegetal and citrusy edge that plays well with traditional savory drinks (Bloody Mary, anyone?) but is also lovely with the floral notes of gin (just one dash in a martini is a revelation, and 2 to 3 dashes takes the sweet edge off a G&T), as well as the grassy, herbal undertone of tequila. Vermouth and sherry can serve as a bridge. And while celery bitters can be successfully deployed with dark spirits, it often helps to bring in other bitters, as well, to achieve a blended effect. In the Fourth Regiment, for example, Angostura and orange bitters join the celery for a complex riff on a Manhattan.
I think part of the reason that bartenders have been in love with celery bitters recently is the novelty they bring to the table: nothing could be further from the old sour-mix-and-cranberry-juice drinks that darkened bars in previous decades. But maybe bartenders (and folks making drinks at home) are just excited about the challenge factor of finding that new combination to make the celery sing. Bottom line: if you're into savory flavors and willing to experiment a bit, celery bitters can put a completely new twist on a variety of drinks you thought could never surprise you. And if you're not quite so adventurous, there's absolutely nothing wrong with buying them just to make a truly excellent Bloody Mary.
So which celery bitters should you buy? Here are my favorites.
Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
The first reintroduction of celery bitters since Prohibition, Bitter Truth's offering won all kinds of accolades when it was first released in 2008, and for good reason. They are my personal favorite for Bloody Mary applications, with heavy, vegetal celery seed flavors balanced out by bracing citrus peels and a complex spice blend of ginger, coriander, and chicory in the background. I love how assertive these bitters are: if you want celery up front and center, look no further. (Note: If you spot a bottle of Berg & Hauck's Celery Bitters, those come from the same folks, but are just formulated to be non-potable, so they're considered a food flavoring that can be sold widely, rather than being classified as a spirit that can only be sold by liquor stores. In this case, the recipes are extremely close, and I couldn't detect any difference in flavor.)
Scrappy's Celery Bitters
Scrappy's Celery Bitters end up a bit more on the floral side, with the citrus balancing the vegetal celery and medicinal herbs well, and a bit of sweetness to tie the flavors together. The balance is both complex and a bit unexpected, leaving each sip simultaneously surprising and refreshing. This is my favorite for juicing up a Martini, or other delicate applications where a gut-punch of celery might be overpowering.
Fee Brothers Celery Bitters are the least aggressive take on the category. They offer a milder celery profile with lots of citrus, and a sweeter, herbal rather than full-on vegetal take away. I think this is the best choice for those easing their way into the world of celery bitters, or those who prefer a very light touch.
These are also my favorite for mixing up a tall glass of home-made Cel-Ray soda.
And one more...
While we're talking celery cocktail additions, you should also consider giving Bittermens Orchard Street Celery Shrub a try. While not strictly a bitters—it mixes vinegar with apples and celery—it's delicious stuff and deserves a mention. The Bittermens concoction is tangy and briny, balancing vegetal flavors with a hint of sweetness. It pairs deliciously with aquavit, and makes a uniquely zesty drinking vinegar, topped up with chilled soda.
Disclosure: Scrappy's and Bitter Truth tasting samples provided for review consideration.