The mysterious magic of bitters

It’s a familiar scene; you're sat at the bar watching your drink be made, the ingredients go in one by one, then the bartender reaches for a tiny bottle and dashes of few drops of bitters in before shaking or stirring it to perfection. Before I was in the drinks industry I remember being slightly mystified by these few drops of liquid and to be honest I wondered what so small an amount of anything could possibly add to my drink. Was this just for show or part of the magic of making cocktails?
Now more than ever bars have huge selections of bitters, often in unmarked bottles or with homemade labels on them. They have become one of the biggest fads in the drinks industry and more varieties are coming onto the market all the time. A few years back it was’nt uncommon to find that a bar had maybe two or three varieties of bitters, almost certainly Angostura, maybe Peychaud’s and maybe even an orange bitters. Now a bar isn’t complete without whiskey barrel aged bitters, celery, lemon, cardamom, liquorice, mole, peach, pineapple, and a selection of freshly brewed homemade flavours. So what is it about these mysterious liquids that make them so indispensible to the modern bartender and why do we use them in cocktails anyway?
I touched on the subject of bitters in a recent blog update and mentioned their origins as tonics for your health and in fact many early cocktails were designed to help the drinker deal with any number of different maladies. But over the years their health giving properties have become less of a focus however what they add to a drink is still indispensible. Ask any good bartender about bitters and they’re likely to tell you they are ‘seasoning for cocktails’ in just the way that salt and pepper are for food.