(Image: Cocktail Hour Home)
What does the century-old Manhattan have in common with the cool cocktails in today’s booming bar scene? Besides the speakeasy-like atmosphere that likely accompanies the drink and the beard on the bartender mixing it, here’s the common ground: a few dashes of flavorful bitters. This retro ingredient is back in both a modern and gourmet way.
Bitters are used to bring balance to cocktails, to add depth and complexity, and to finish drinks with a punch of seasoning—much like salt or pepper in food. Cocktails made with bitters immediately morph into the complete opposite of the kind of one-note syrupy punches and flavored vodkas you sipped in college. In fact, part of the original definition of a cocktail was the inclusion of bitters.
For a long time, though, that definition lapsed, and three hard-to-find brands of bitters dominated the dwindling market. But in the last decade, as professional bartenders, serious home mixologists, and discerning drinkers have come to appreciate well-made cocktails, homespun bitters bottles have proliferated on the shelves. Many mixologists have even perfected proprietary brews—another nod to the past, when “barkeepers used to make their own bitters and guarded their recipes like gold,” according to Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric, the owners of the popular Manhattan bar, Employees Only, in their book, Speakeasy.
Here’s what you need to know to start sipping on this trend.
What Are Bitters?
Bitters were invented as medicine. By infusing wine with bitter roots and fruits, healers made the most of one of alcohol’s chemical qualities: that it can accept compounds from other ingredients. Bitters are closely related to liqueurs, which are both infused and sweetened. They’re now made from higher-proof liquors rather than wine.
Bitters got involved in 19th-century cocktails because they helped mask the unpleasantly strong edges of once unregulated whiskeys and rums. The powerfully aromatic and, yes, bitter tastes helped to lessen the bad quality booze’s bite. In today’s bar scene, bitters act more like seasonings, not just your everyday salt and pepper, but also your cinnamon, kaffir lime leaf, pink peppercorn, or Lapsang Souchong tea.
Back to the chemistry of booze for one more insight into why bitters are so useful to cocktail craft: Imagine trying to season a glass of water with pinches of dry spices. They’re all falling to the bottom, right? None of that salt or pepper or cardamom or kaffir lime is getting into your drink. That’s a problem. But alcohol can receive that flavor, so long as you allow time for the infusion to happen (anywhere from a day to a few weeks). At that point, the bitters can deliver deep flavor directly to your drink. That means we can finally add macadamia notes to our Tiki drinks and star anise and nutmeg to our rye punches.
The most common bitters were Angostura (made with a South American citrus), Peychaud’s, and Regan’s Orange Bitters. But now that there are tons of small-batch makers, keep an eye out for interesting bottles at your local gourmet market.
How Do You Drink Them?
The short answer to this one is no, you usually don’t drink bitters, at least not by themselves. Bitters are very strong! Makers usually chose very high-proof alcohols for their infusions, and the bitter notes alone could knock you over. With the exception of herbal Fernet Branca and fruity Campari, which are drinkable alone, you’ll want to apply bitters in dashes, not shots.
Old fashioneds, mojitos, and mint juleps are a few of the classic drinks whose essential character derives from two dashes of bitters—usually the citrusy Angostura. But nearly any cocktail will become smoother if you add a drop or two, especially if a first sip reveals that the drink is too sweet, too sour, or too strong.
Pairing Your Bitters
The pith of citrus fruits has an innate bitterness (unlike the fruits themselves, which are sour), a quality that has made orange, lemon, grapefruit, and bitter orange some of the most readily available and useful types out there.
But now that we’ve got artisan bitters in the world, there are all kinds of ingredients steeping, from old-timey wormwood, chamomile, saffron, bitter almond, and myrrh to new classics like rhubarb, celery, licorice, cherry bark, hibiscus, and prickly pear.
With this vast range of flavors, cocktail makers have a broad selection to play around with, and most of the time there’s no wrong approach to matching bitter seasonings with the core qualities of the drink. But here’s a rule of thumb to look for on drink menus and if you’re playing around at home: Pair like with like. Though bitters carry especially intense extracts, the core flavors should match the rest of the drink, just as any mixer you stir in should complement the booze.
A couple dashes of bitters won’t add a substantial amount of alcohol to your drink, and therefore you don’t have to reserve your usage to happy hour. Two drops will add punch to your vinaigrette, evenness to a not-great bottle of sparkling wine, and pizzazz to your lemonade or seltzer.