The Last Dry January Cocktail Idea You’ll Ever Need: A N/A History of Bitters
It might feel like “Dry January,” the ubiquitous New Year’s resolution taking social media, liquor stores, and trendy bars by storm, has been around for… well, forever. With terminology like “mocktail” becoming part of our collective vocabulary, and op-eds about the “sober curious” lifestyle popping up all over Tiktok and Instagram, it’s not hard to see why.
However, the annual liver flush has only officially been around since 2014, when Alcohol Change UK first registered the trademark.
Today there are dozens of alternatives to our favorite “giggle waters,” for better or for worse. But what came before the canned calamities and glorified sodas taking over our social media feeds today?
When Hubert Underberg founded his namesake company in 1846, bitters were well-established across the globe.
The classic and well-known Angostura bitters were first commercialized in 1824. And the use of bitters as medical tonics waxed and waned through the centuries, from the Middle Ages into the 1700s, when they were advertised as an over-the-counter remedy for everything from indigestion to malaria.
It wasn’t long until herbal bitters, of all kinds, featuring hundreds of different herbs, roots, barks, and peels, made their way into cocktails and other beverages.
One of the first printed mentions, in an early 1800s issue of The Balance, and Columbian Repository, a Federalist newspaper from Hudson, N.Y., defined a cocktail as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” This drink would become what we know now as an Old Fashioned.
Around the same time, the Temperance movement gave bitters a different kind of boost.
The one and only Jerry Thomas’ cocktail guides contain a section for “Temperance Cocktails” as they were called at the time. From “effervescing” fruit drinks to the “Nectar for Dog Days,” these refreshing alternatives often relied on strong flavors of citrus, ginger, and you guessed it, bitters.
Temperance bars, followed by the addition of soda fountains to local pharmacies, took the place of the saloon as a town gathering spot.
Today, it might be hard to imagine anything more for sale at a fountain than root beer floats and chocolate malts, or maybe an egg cream if that’s more your speed. But soda fountains of yesteryear sold hundreds of combinations to satiate kids and adults forced off the hard stuff during prohibition.
The Dispenser's Formulary, a guide for soda fountain operation written in the early 1900s, even includes rickeys and fizzes in their drinks list, non-alcoholic of course.
Coca-Cola got its start in temperance bars and at soda fountains. As did the Horse’s Neck (which was developed without a spirit, as simply a ginger ale with bitters and the signature lemon peel spiraling down the glass).
Interestingly, for many social circles during the Temperance movement and into prohibition, bitters were the only acceptable form of alcohol consumption.
Another popular drink was the phosphate soda. Made with acid phosphate (a shelf-stable alternative to citrus), these sweet and tart drinks came in flavors like cherry and chocolate, all the way to angostura.
In a way, you can argue that temperance and the Prohibition might have created some of today’s most popular cocktails. In the same way, the use of bitters to create new flavors and interesting non-alcoholic “January cocktails” has led to the dozens of interesting flavors available today.
Underberg survived the temperance movement in America, likely because it was seen as an herbal remedy, enjoyed for a myriad of reasons and a myriad of ways.
And if you’re thinking about trying for Dry January, or Sober October, or just taking a few weekends off once in a while… skip the added sugar and weird flavors of N/A wines and spirits, and lean on a splash of Underberg bitters*.
*Some herbal and aromatic bitters, including Underberg, contain alcohol. Typically the alcohol content in a Bitters and Soda is somewhere around .003% ABV and not alcohol-free.