Watch out, there’s a new red bittersweet liqueur in town. It’s called Dr. Hostetter’s Bitter and it might even be better than a certain Italian brand. We talked to Benedict Gordon and Robert Black from Phoenyx Spirits to find out more.
Last weekend I made the best Boulevardier I’ve ever tasted. I used equal parts of my usual bourbon, Woodford Reserve, and a very nice sherry vermouth, but the thing that made it exceptional was that instead of Campari, I used Dr. Hostetter’s Bitter. Rather than the thick soupy concoction it usually is, in a good way, this was bright, fruity, and light – or as light as a 25% ABV cocktail is ever going to be.
Most cocktail books will recommend generic spirits or vermouth but when it comes to bitters, they will usually go for one brand, Campari. Recipes for a Negroni always call for gin, vermouth, and Campari. In the past 10 years we’ve had premium gin, premium vermouth, and premium tonic water, but still everyone reaches for Campari.
Reviving old brands
Benedict Gordon and Robert Black from Phoenyx Spirits thought they could do better. Or if not better, then certainly different. The company is so-named as the duo look back through the archives for strong brands that have disappeared to revive. One such was Dr. Hostetter’s Bitters. It was invented in 1853 by a Dutch immigrant to Pennsylvania, Jacob Hostetter, but it was his son David who properly commercialised the formula. It would have been sold partly on its medicinal qualities in a bottle with St. George slaying a dragon on the label. The big break came when Dr Hostetter’s was made part of the rations of the Union army during the American Civil War. There’s a parallel here to how Camembert took off when those little wooden boxes of cheese were supplied to French soldiers in the First World War.
According to Gordon, there was a whole category of American bitters that were incredibly popular in the 19th and early 20th century at the same time when a similar industry was growing in Italy. In fact, Dr. Hostetter’s is older than Campari, which was founded in 1860. At one point, Dr. Hostetter’s claimed to have sold 50 million bottles of its bitters, but this mighty industry was all but wiped out when Prohibition came in in 1919. The brand did limp on until 1955, apparently a shadow of its former self, but then disappeared completely, a victim of neglect and changing tastes.
So why revive it rather than just creating a new premium bitters brand? Gordon described it as “instant authenticity”. He told the story of showing Dr. Hostetter’s at Imbibe, a trade show, and people thought they recognised it, even though they almost certainly had never seen it before, “people see it and it looks natural.” Working with an old brand also focuses how you market it: “start with the brand, that will inform everything you do. We don’t have the tyranny of having to make those choices,” he continued.
Gordon’s background is in brand development. He worked in Hong Kong with such big names as Cathay Pacific, Samsung, and HSBC. In 2014, while he was out there, he met Rob Black, a South African in finance. The two hit it off immediately and both were interested in the idea of reviving heritage brands. Initially they looked widely at defunct US and British brands but quickly narrowed it down to alcohol. According to Black, they had similar views on which brands would work best. Now living in Britain, in 2020 they launched Phoenyx Spirits with Dr. Hostetter’s.
Creating the new Dr. Hostetter’s Bitter
The brand changed a lot in its 100 year lifespan. The duo have tried various iterations of the original and, according to Gordon, they tried “to bring back as much as possible the taste profile.” Both new and old versions contain quinine so there was a modicum of truth to Dr. Hostetter’s being sold as a medicine, as it would have had antimalarial properties. The new version at 20% is around half as strong as the 19th century version. The other big change, however, has been the colour.
They use cochineal, tiny beetles, to colour it red just like a certain Italian brand used to. I think this is a clever move as somehow a Negroni that isn’t bright red doesn’t taste as good. The big difference with Campari is the amount of sugar, Dr. Hostetter’s contains 190g per litre compared with around 260g. I really noticed the lightness there. Normally when making a Boulevardier, I double up on the bourbon so it’s not overpowered by Campari but there’s no need here.
Alongside Dr. Hostetter’s, the duo have launched Khoosh, an intensely bitter citrus-led drink liqueur flavoured with quassia amara. It’s a revival of an old British brand with a striking label featuring a lady sitting side saddle on a tiger. Some might find it a little bit too bitter but it tastes wonderful in a cocktail with English sparkling wine or Champagne, and I imagine that bartenders are going to love working with that intense bitterness. Apparently, there’s been a great response to the two brands from the trade.
Tasting both of them neat, and they are delicious on their own, one can immediately tell that these are drinks made with natural ingredients. It was no surprise that they had worked on the recipes with a company that makes, for my money, Britain’s finest bitter drinks of all sorts. The finished products are made at a small high quality small distillery in England. Black and Gordon asked me, however, not to reveal who these people were.
What the hell do I do with that?
Both Dr. Hostetter and Khoosh are cleverly designed liqueurs because there’s none of the – ‘what the hell do I do with that?’ – that you get with some new brands. The former works as a lighter, fruitier alternative to Campari though with no shortage of bitterness. It’s great in a Spritz or just with soda water. Khoosh is a little spikier but would work in place of Cointreau or Curaçao.
Black and Gordon (it sounds like an ‘80s advertising agency) have some more revived brands in the pipeline. I think anything they release will be worth tasting. Meanwhile, get your hands on a bottle of Dr. Hostetter’s. It really does make the best Boulevardier you’ve ever had.