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.
While this is true to a large extent they seem to have developed into something more than that. Depending on the style of bitters they can be used to add new dimensions of flavour, can draw out flavours hidden in a cocktail and can add depth and structure to a drink.
I think that to consumers especially, but also to bartenders starting out in the industry bitters can be a bit baffling. There are lots of bartenders out there who simply use them in a drink because the recipe calls for them, without really knowing why they are added. Likewise there are plenty of consumers out there who don’t know why they need them, where to get them or when making a drink at home think they can do without them even if they are listed in the recipe.
In many drinks bitters are absolutely essential to enhance the flavours, bind them together and create a balanced and delicious cocktail. They can add flavour and complexity to even the simplest of drinks. So below I’ve taken a look at some different styles of bitters as well as some of the most famous drinks that just don’t work without that dash or two!
The best-known bitters are probably Angostura Aromatic bitters, but actually there are plenty of aromatic style bitters on the market. Aromatic is described in the dictionary as a plant or food that has a strong and pleasant smell of herbs and spices, I guess that’s actually a pretty good starting point to explain what these bitters are. They are an alcoholic liquid that has been infused or otherwise flavoured by a number of plants, flowers, barks, herbs or spices traditionally including at least one bitter element, to create a complex and intensely flavoured product. These bitter ingredients along with many of the herb and spices have traditionally been used as herbal remedies and it seems likely that there inclusion in alcoholic drinks started as a way of making these bitter tonics more palatable to drink.
In fact the Sazerac started its life as exactly that, a short strong drink with plenty of Peychaud's bitters in it to help settle the stomach. This along with the Old Fashioned is probably the best example of an incredibly simple drink that relies on the complexity of bitters to add depth to it. Without the dashes of bitters both of these drinks would be little more than slightly sweetened American Whiskey (or cognac depending on your preference in the Sazerac). If you ever want the perfect example of how important bitters are to a cocktail try making the below recipe (a Mexican twist on the classic sazerac cocktail) without the bitters, then try it with… you’ll see first hand why bartenders reach for these little bottles so often!
SAZERAC DE JALISCO
60ml Siete Leaguas Blanco tequila
1 barspoon gomme
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir all ingredients together in a mixing glass with plenty of cracked or cubed ice and strain into a chilled, absinthe rinsed rocks glass (with no ice in it) garnish with a pink grapefruit twist but don’t let it go into the drink… I like to leave it on the rim of the glass so that you continue to get the aroma.
The other benefit of using bitters in drinks is that they can help to bind flavours together giving you a smooth transition from one taste to the next. For example a Manhattan without bitters just doesn’t come together right. You tend to find that the whiskey, be it rye or bourbon, just sits alongside the vermouth and the two don’t combine as well as they should. Add a couple of dashes of aromatic bitters and the drink is transformed with flavours developing and flowing perfectly from one to the next.
In fact many times when I chat to bartenders who are working on a new cocktail for the drinks list or a comp, the final tweak that they end up searching for is which bitters to use to bring all the ingredients together and to give the drink structure and depth.
The other style of bitters are flavoured; in essence aromatic bitters with the addition of a dominant flavouring ingredient. The most widely used and common of these flavoured bitters is orange, but now it seems like they are available in almost any flavour you can think of. This style of bitters can be used to either compliment an existing flavour within the drink or add a new and interesting note or aroma to it. These seem to be the bitters that are in the fastest growth at the moment and the trend of bartenders making their own flavoured bitters is now firmly established.
As brands have increased their ranges, it has spurred bartenders to discover more unusual combinations whether manufactured or homemade. It seems like half the bartending community spend their days off brewing up batches of bitters using whatever ingredient has caught their eye that isn’t already commercially available.
I am as guilty as anyone of being drawn into the desire to create my own unusual bitters, and have in the past played with pineapple bitters, black truffle, coffee, sage and my current experiment black pepper. These homemade concoctions offer the chance to add new dimensions to existing cocktail recipes or create flavours that have never been tried before.
Of course there’s a down side to this as well as many drinks now can’t be recreated anywhere other than the bar where you first tasted them. It will be interesting to see how long this period of bitters creativity lasts and what we end up with in terms of a lasting bitters legacy in the drinks industry. Personally I think that we will see a few bars develop their own signature bitters but the sheer number that we are seeing at the moment will gradually reduce.
With flavoured bitters you can subtly change the nature of a drink, but for this to work you need to have a proper understanding of the ingredients you are working with. A recipe that calls for orange bitters for example wont taste the same if you use Angostura orange instead of Bitter Truth orange, they are completely different styles. I guess as with all cocktail ingredients it comes down to tasting them, understanding what they add to a drink and then using them in the best way possible. Take this example which uses Angostura orange bitters for their light, fresh orange taste, a heavier orange bitters just doesn’t work as well:
ORANGE FLOWER DAIQUIRI
50ml El Dorado 3 year old
25ml fresh lime juice
10ml orange flower water
Shake all ingredients with plenty of cubed ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist. The addition of the bitters, flower water and orange twist transforms the classic daiquiri into something mouth-wateringly light and fresh and the use of a rich white rum provides a great base to support the other ingredients.
NOTHING TO FEEL BITTER ABOUT!
As there are so many commercially available bitters on the market now we couldn’t possibly review them all but below are some of our favourites. I was recently asked by a friend which 5 bitters I couldn’t do without, he also asked Angus Winchester, Tristan Stephenson and Dave Wondrich, it was interesting to see which bitters we each gravitated towards, and especially interesting to see that Peychaud’s was the only one that we all four agreed on.
When it comes to aromatic bitters there are now a lot of choices but 4 stand out to me as being exceptional. First there are the classic Angostura bitters
, which are not only the most recognised and used of bitters but also one of the most versatile. They are complex and structured with a long flavour profile so even used sparingly in drinks they will add length and depth to the flavour of your cocktail. They are great for most of your classic dark spirit based cocktails and are also great to use in conjunction with other bitters. For example try a rum old fashioned with a couple of dashes of Angostura and a couple of dashes of orange bitters.
I’m also a huge fan of Adam Elmegirab’s reproduction of the previously lost Boker’s
bitters, which are sharply bitter with lovely spice notes coming through. They are strong and some how taste old fashioned to me and they are fantastic in a Sweet Manhattan. Another new favourite of mine is The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ own decanter bitters
, which while still being quite complex and structured, rely heavily on clove for their flavour. These are perfect for rich wintery drinks and add a new dimension to flips and toddies. Just a word of warning though, use them sparingly as clove is one of those flavours that can overpower a drink!
The last on my list of aromatics is Peychaud’s
bitters, which gave rise the Sazerac cocktail. These bitters are quite fruity in character and once again work brilliantly with dark spirits, especially bourbon or rye. That being said they are lighter and more rounded than the others listed above so work really well with light spirits too..
And then there are the flavoured bitters… almost too many to mention, but starting with orange bitters, I like Angostura orange for tropical and tiki style drinks as it is light and fresh. For more classic cocktails though I keep The Bitter Truth
on hand as they are both much richer with deeper flavour of intense bitter orange. When it comes to dark spirits and classic style drinks both of these shine!
Staying with The Bitter Truth for a moment there are few in their range that stand out as being exceptional. Their Celery
, Lemon and Mole (chocolate) bitters are the three that I always keep close by. In fact the Lemon
is one of my must have ingredients and to my mind is one of the most under used. I would almost take these over any orange bitters and that is saying something!
Fee Brothers do a range of flavours but in my personal opinion many of them are a little one-dimensional and lack the depth and bitterness that I look for when making cocktails. The notable exceptions to this are the Peach
and the Plum bitters which are both excellent products. Their Whiskey Barrel Aged are also a good aromatic bitters.
As I said the list is almost endless and as with all ingredients there will be some that one person loves and another person hates, but the important thing is that if you are making drinks at home or if you are just starting to learn about cocktails, don’t miss out the bitters, they are essential.
Taste them on their own (you can always ask a bartender to let you have a taste), try making your drinks without them and tasting them, then adding them and seeing what a difference they make. Experiment with different combinations or have a go at making your own, but never ever try to do without them, they add too much to a drink to be left on the shelf!