The effort to resurrect an iconic brand is never one to be taken lightly. It requires determined research, patience and respect. Tempus Fugit’s relationship with Abbott’s Bitters actually dates back to well before the founding of Tempus Fugit itself.
When Tempus Fugit founders, Peter Schaf and John Troia, first met over 25 years ago, they discovered that they were both avid collectors of antique bottles – a hobby they’d each been pursuing since childhood, dating back to the late 60’s and 70’s. Peter split his collecting time between upstate Wisconsin and Florida, where bottles from the earliest Spanish colonial settlements are regularly pulled from the swampy muck of South Florida. John spent his early bottle collecting days scouring the local flea markets, garage sales and antique shops of Northern California with his grandfather, also a devoted bottle collector and antique dealer.
In the bottle-collecting world, there are a few specialty categories that tend to have the greatest collecting value; among them is the category of bitters. Often having unique bottle shapes and rare colors, bitters are among the most sought after of all antique bottle categories. Even more rare would be a bitters bottle with a partial or full paper label still intact. While many of the most rare and desirable bitters bottles were too expensive to be within the reach of a young bottle collector, a few stood out as more common and very affordable. Of these common varieties is Abbott’s Bitters. John scored his first Abbott’s Bitters bottle at about age seven. It was a prized possession, even if it wasn’t the patent medicine variety bitters, or one of a unique shape or color. The reverence with which Tempus Fugit approached our goal to bring the Abbott’s Man back into bars and into use for the professional and home bartender was inspired in part from this early exposure to the iconic brand.
Barking Up The Wrong Tree
During the initial stages of our research, we sought to trace the lineage of the C.W. Abbott Company from its earliest roots to its eventual demise. One step was to add to our collection of Abbott’s Bitters artifacts, which includes sealed bottles of Abbott’s Bitters with original contents, marketing pieces and other ephemera. Of particular interest was the pre-1907 period during which time the product was known as Abbott’s Angostura Bitters, causing it to face a number of legal encounters with the J.W. Wupperman Company, who were the U.S. representatives for Dr. J.G. B. Seigert’s Angostura Bitters. While at first glance it may have appeared that the Abbott’s Angostura Bitters name was a reference to an already well-known brand, deeper research revealed a much different narrative. We are fortunate to live in a time when many historic records are digitized and available for public review. Those records reveal that the Abbott’s Angostura Bitters name was unrelated to Dr. J.G. B. Seigert’s Angostura Bitters, rather, the product was named Abbott’s Angostura Bitters for the simple reason that its primary ingredient was angostura bark.This fact is disclosed in the sworn legal testimony of the principals of C.W. Abbott & Co., namely Cornelius F. Abbott and his son Cornelius W. Abbott, in connection with the litigation between Abbott’s and the Wupperman company and is echoed in a number of other public statements by the company.
So integral was angostura bark to the flavor of the original Abbott’s Bitters that it would be impossible to replicate this important product without having angostura bark as a principal ingredient. With this conclusion supported by historical documents and public records, we turned toward the formulation stage of our Abbott’s Bitters project.SIEGERT v. ABBOTT Legal Summary (1893).pdf
Formulation R & D
Much has been discussed about individual efforts to replicate the flavor/aroma profile of original Abbott’s Bitters. During our research, we naturally came across a number of non-commercial experiments published online; especially recipes developed using the results from the often-referenced Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) test conducted around 2005. In reviewing this data and the various dialogues regarding this research, a couple of questions stood out. First, inasmuch as many have speculated that the formulation for Abbott’s Bitters had changed in its later years, it’s important to identify what time period the liquid sample for the GC/MS test was derived. From our vintage bottles of Abbott’s bitters, we have identified roughly four primary periods that can be definitively identified from the bottle packaging:
- Post-Prohibition to 1940
- 1941 to the end of C.W. Abbott & Co in the late 1950’s
If the sample GC/MS test was derived from a latter stage sample, then it is possible that a number of original ingredients from the earlier formulation of Abbott’s Bitters were no longer used or present in the product at that point. The Pre-Prohibition era disclosures by the C.W. Abbott principals and company proved that angostura bark was definitely the key constituent in the original formulation, which of course led us to the obvious next question: Where was the angostura bark in the test results? There are only two logical answers - either the GC/MS test was defective in its results or the sample tested may have been so late in the Abbott’s Bitters lineage that it was made after the product had been reformulated. So unique and specific is the angostura bark flavor profile that we can easily understand how some have concluded that the flavor had changed and it was no longer the same quality that it once was. We surmise that the removal of angostura bark in the latter formulation may have been the cause of the claims of recipe modification rather than the removal of some less significant ingredient.
We find it ironic that some individuals have suggested that we simply co-opted the research and efforts of others that have been posted on various web sites and forums. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The absolute lack of angostura bark in the GC/Mass Spectrometry test results and the resulting formulations based upon those results, omitting angostura bark altogether, made it very obvious to us early on that this test and the resulting formulations discussed on social media sites were not only unusable in our research, but fundamentally flawed. In fact, we were quite surprised at how many people were willing to accept these test results as definitive and not to question the absence of angostura bark, when the available historical information so clearly showed that angostura bark was in the original formulation.
Understanding that Abbott’s Bitters was truly an ‘angostura bark bitters’, we focused our attention upon locating and identifying as many recipes as possible for angostura bark bitters. We scoured numerous reference sources, common and unique, foreign and domestic. On November 18, 2007, we discovered and purchased the remnants of the estate of a New Jersey angostura bark bitters producer by the name of O.B. Van Camp.
O.B. Van Camp was also, coincidently, threatened with legal action by the same J.W. Wupperman Company that had legally pursued C.W. Abbott & Co. for so many years. Among the affects of this estate were two empty bottles of O.B. Van Camp Angostura Bitters, a number of the documents between J.W. Wupperman Company and O.B. Van Camp, and remarkably, the original recipe for O.B. Van Camp’s Angostura (Bark) Bitters.
We recognized that it was not often that you run across the original handwritten recipe for an original product that was bottled and sold just before the turn of the last century, and we happily added this recipe to the rest of our growing list of angostura bark recipe versions. We would shortly find out how important this recipe would become to our research.
Upon compiling over 20 different angostura bark recipes, including the O.B. Van Camp recipe, we set about to replicate each recipe. We approached these trials in the same manner that we have approached the development of all of our previous products, in terms of identifying typical formulations as well as investigating unique or standout protocols that may have some interesting results. This took quite a bit of time and effort and the ingredients ranged from easily obtainable to rare, but the key-unifying factor for each recipe was the use of angostura bark. In particular, we looked for any angostura bark recipes that contained Tonka beans, which we did find, however its infrequency indicated it was an atypical ingredient among historical angostura bark bitters recipes. As our trials progressed, we extracted samples from over a dozen different sealed bottles of original Abbott’s Bitters, ranging from the four different time periods that we had previously identified (Pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, Post-Prohibition to 1940, and 1941 to the demise of C.W. Abbott & Co. in the late 1950’s).
We evaluated these samples for consistency in aromatics and flavors, most especially in testing them in the Manhattan Cocktail. Obviously, when trying to replicate the flavor profile of a known historic product, it is ideal to use samples of the original product as a target, otherwise, how would you know whether you were close or not? Fortunately, our Abbott’s obsession led us to obtain numerous sealed bottles of Abbott’s Bitters over the years and we were able to use them in our research. Among the many things we noticed from our sealed bottles was how significantly even small quantities of the original Abbott’s Bitters impacted the flavor of a cocktail, especially the Pre-Prohibition and Prohibition era samples. Another interesting observation was that the samples were fairly consistent within each era even though the bottles came from entirely different regional sources in the USA and were stored under different conditions, often reflected in the condition of the bottle’s original packaging. The effect of oxidation on viscosity and aromas was apparent and was also fairly consistent from bottle to bottle.
Upon completing our various angostura bark recipes, we then put the test batches in small oak barrels to be aged for 6 months. One must not underestimate the importance of the barrel-aging step, as it causes the liquid to extract a number of different flavors from the wood that make a significant contribution to the flavor and aromas in Abbott’s Bitters. The tannins and wood sugars add significantly to the finished product and need to be considered when dialing in the final flavor profile. After the barrel-aging period, we then tested each sample side-by-side in various cocktails. At this stage there was no use in testing our recipes directly with original Abbott’s Bitters, as we wanted to determine which of our formulations had the most impact upon a cocktail in 2-3 dashes. All of the marketing literature put out by C.W. Abbott & Co. recommended 2-3 dashes in a cocktail. If a particular formulation could not make an impact on a cocktail using that small amount, we deemed the recipe a failure. While our testing yielded many interesting results, we narrowed our sample recipes down to just a few worthy candidates. The next step was the introduction of oxidation to the candidate samples to come as close as possible to the oxidized qualities of the original samples of Abbott’s Bitters from our collection.
Once our final candidate recipes were selected, we needed to evaluate our new samples against those from the sealed bottles of original Abbott’s Bitters, in terms of oxidation. Having extensively researched the history and production methods of Absinthe, we were quite familiar with the qualities of sealed bottles of “Pre-Ban” (i.e. before 1915) Absinthe and what occurs with the extracted oils from the plants distilled in its creation. For example, the oils from anise, fennel seed and hyssop will oxidize and often create an aroma referred to as “baby powder”, a dusty-sweet, talc-like aroma, however, a sweetness that would not be likened to vanilla or vanillin. In fact, even back in the "Pre-Ban" period of Absinthe, it was well known that introducing freshly distilled Absinthe into a chamber with forced oxygen would create an Absinthe that tasted as if it had been aged, thus creating a smoother, superior product. A modern example of this oxidation technique is that of micro-oxygenation, used in the wine industry to help add an aged quality to relatively young, and often expensive wines. In this technique, oxygen is slowly bubbled through large tanks of young wines, helping to accelerate the beneficial qualities that wines receive from naturally occurring oxidation, although typically only through time spent aging in a barrel. Since we know a few people that perform micro-oxygenation for numerous wine industry customers in nearby Napa and Sonoma, we enlisted their knowledge and techniques in a bench-trial sized format. We then applied these trials to our candidate recipes, looking for the oxidized characteristics of our Pre-Prohibition and Prohibition era vintage Abbott’s Bitters bottles. While most of the outcomes from these experiments were very successful, one recipe in particular stood out quite distinctively from the other recipes and came remarkably close to our original Pre-Prohibition Abbott’s Bitters samples.
The O.B. Van Camp recipe
It is ironic that the same angostura bark bitters recipe used by O.B. Van Camp – themselves sued by the J.W. Wupperman Company, along with C.W. Abbott Co. - would turn out to be the closest to our original Abbott’s Bitters samples, once it was oxidized. We even observed additional sweet notes that became more evident as we allowed the O.B. Van Camp recipe to evaporate in a wine glass – sweet notes that were very similar to those revealed in the original Abbott’s Bitters that we also allowed to evaporate in a glass. We made a few additional modifications to the O.B. Van Camp recipe to dial it even closer to the original Abbott’s Bitters. The result is, what we believe based on our samples, a credible and remarkably similar version of what original Abbott’s Bitters would have tasted like as a freshly aged, yet period product, not yet oxidized by a century spent in a bottle.
To characterize Peter and John’s enjoyment of researching historic spirits as a “passion” is a bit of an understatement. Many believe “obsession” may be a more accurate term. Such is the allure of history, a type of Siren’s song. Sometimes the story is revealed slowly and in small pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, sometimes details overflow from a single rich vein of historic documentation and sometimes it teases until you realize the answer has been in front of you all along. In the case of our exploration of Abbott’s Bitters, there were elements of all of the above. We would have loved to re-introduce Abbott’s Bitters to the cocktail world 7 years ago, nearer the beginning of our Abbott’s journey, but we couldn’t confidently do so; there were still too many secrets not yet revealed.
Our inferences and conclusions about the making of Abbott’s Bitters are based on countless hours of research and diligent effort to uncover documentary evidence to support our contentions. We do not claim to have exactly re-created the original formulation. Unless a verifiable copy of the pre-Prohibition recipe and protocol for Abbott’s Bitters is discovered, no one can make that claim with any real certainty. What we do have is an ‘angostura bark bitters’, which historically is what Abbott’s Bitters was. The recipe is culled from numerous 19th Century angostura bark formulations, one of which we know was actually produced commercially and not just referenced in a book. Finally, we painstakingly compared our final recipe to numerous samples of original Abbott’s Bitters, most notably those from the pre-Prohibition era, when Abbott’s Bitters achieved its stellar reputation as a cocktail bitters to rival the best of the era. Our goal over these past seven years has been to create the truest, best, most authentic expression of the original Abbott’s Bitters.
Please check back regularly for additional information about the history of Abbott's Bitters from our research and collection of historic objects.
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