Celery is a notoriously boring vegetable. Yet when its savory, herbaceous essence is captured in the form of a popular cocktail ingredient — bitters — the once-dull veggie has the power to enhance and transform a variety of drinks to great effect.
Celery used in anything other than a Bloody Mary might sound a bit offbeat, but the bitters were once commonly used in a variety of cocktails throughout the boozy years before prohibition.
While they were never as popular as other kinds of bitters, there are records of drinks using the ingredient as far back as 1914. The century-old treatise Drinks by Jacques Straub includes a few instances. The Tip-Top cocktail, for example, features celery bitters and sparkling water, and the Fourth Regiment cocktail, which is basically a Manhattan with whiskey and vermouth, is enhanced by a trifecta of orange, angostura and celery bitters.
Nowadays, several brands of nouveau celery bitters are available on the market, including those from Scrappy’s, The Bitter Truth and Fee Bros. Each producer follows its own (usually proprietary) process, but most employ celery seed, lemongrass, ginger and an array of other bittering agents and botanicals to achieve a celery flavor.
Bartenders across the country have embraced the resurrected ingredient with fervor over the past few years. At New York cocktail bar Saxon + Parole, celery bitters appear in at least four cocktails. Head bartender Masa Urushido says the stuff works best in drinks flush with botanical flavors. That’s because the bitters add a slightly grassy element that plays well with warm herbs and spice, Urushido says. The bar’s Celery Gimlet, developed by cocktail expert Naren Young, acts as host to herbaceous Green Chartreuse, gin and floral St. Germain, and Urushido pairs the celery flavor with gin again in the Garden Tonic, brimming with fresh celery juice and lime.
Urushido also likes the way that celery rounds out and invokes the inherent salinity found in sherry cocktails and dry vermouth. “There’s a classic cocktail called the Bamboo Cocktail, that has both dry sherry and dry vermouth that’s usually made with orange bitters,” he says. “But, instead of adding three dashes of orange bitters, you can add a few dashes of celery and lemon bitters to make a summery, light drink.”
And, while celery and tequila don’t intersect on the Saxon + Parole menu specifically, other bars across the country favor that flavor pairing, as tequila already has a similarly earthy element. At Mayahuel in New York, celery bitters spice up reposado tequila, oloroso sherry, Benedictine and cucumber in the Montrose cocktail, and at The Brooklynite in San Antonio, celery bitters deepen spicy sriracha syrup, lime, cucumber and blanco tequila in the tempestuous Foul Play cocktail.
One could also try adding a few dashes to a grapefruit-forward Paloma, as the celery bitters will contribute a slightly salty, borderline lemongrass-like personality to the vivacious drink. Or, use it to spruce up an average gin and tonic for a clever twist on the classic summer sip.
Here are a few more recipes to try from Saxon + Parole:
OUR PIMM’S CUP
1.5 ounce Pimm’s No. 1
1/2 ounce limoncello
1/2 ounce Zubrowka vodka
3/4 ounce strawberry syrup
1/2 ounce lemon juice
5 dashes celery bitters
Shake all ingredients (except ginger beer) with ice until chilled. Strain over fresh ice into a highball glass. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with a cucumber ribbon rolled into a circle & skewered.
Celery Gimlet (recipe by Naren Young)
1.5 ounce gin
1/4 ounce Green Chartreuse
1/4 ounce St. Germain
3/4 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce fresh celery juice (juice 1 celery stick or puree in a food processor, then strain the pulp)
Pinch of salt
5 dashes verjus or Chardonnay vinegar
2 dashes The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
Fresh or pickled celery ribbon, for garnish
Lime syrup ingredients:
Peel of 2 medium limes
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
Directions for lime syrup:
In a large pot set over medium heat, combine the lime peels, sugar and water. Bring to a boil and cook until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat. Allow to cool and strain, pressing the lime peels. Store in the refrigerator.
Directions for the cocktail:
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the gin, Green Chartreuse, St. Germain, lime juice, 3/4 ounce reserved lime syrup, celery juice, salt, verjus and bitters. Shake vigorously, then strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with the celery ribbon. Serve.
Read more about bitters on Food Republic: