Cocktails: a bitters fix

Champagne Cocktail | photo by Ed Anderson
Elevate cocktails with bitters flavours from mint to maple

“A Manhattan isn’t a Manhattan without the bitters.” Brad Thomas Parsons comes by this spirited statement honestly. The author, who readily admits to his fixation with bitters, earned the 2012 James Beard Foundation book award for beverage for Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-all, With Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas (Ten Speed Press).

A Manhattan isn’t a Manhattan without the bitters

But back to that Manhattan. According to the original 1906 definition, a cocktail is composed of four essential ingredients: spirits, sugar, water and aromatic bitters. Unlike their digestif counterparts—grappa, amari and Jägermeister, to name a few—cocktail bitters aren’t supposed to be quaffed. Instead, they play a supporting, but essential, role in classic drinks such as the Sazerac, Champagne Cocktail, and Old-Fashioned.

The birth of Angostura bitters

In the 1800s, though, aromatic bitters were part of a doctor’s equipage, not a bartender’s arsenal. Despite an alcohol content of around 45%, bitters (then and now) are non-potable. The ingredients—bitter roots and bark, and fruits and flowers steeped in high-proof alcohol—were brewed together for their medicinal value. In fact, The formula for Angostura aromatic bitters (the bitters in a Manhattan) was developed around 1824 by a Dr. Siegert, who administered bitters to seasick sailors who visited the eponymous Venezuela trading town. Soon, his bitters biz was born.

New Orleans cures all with the Sazerac cocktail

Three thousand kilometres away in New Orleans, pharmacist Antoine Amedie Peychaud started adding a dash of his namesake bitters to Cognac, creating a curative cocktail: the Sazerac. The year was 1838, and Prohibition hadn’t yet staunched the flow of alcohol in North America. But when it did, bitters played a new role: they masked the taste of poor-quality bootlegged alcohol. Orange bitters was introduced by Fee Brothers in in New York 1951, and along with Angostura and Peychaud’s, it one of the few bitters that endured post-Prohibition.

Bitters are back: classic and modern cocktails

Today, bitters have earned their rightful position back at the bar. As Parsons puts it, “Bitters are the ultimate matchmaker: just a dash or two can bring a perfect balance to two seemingly incompatible spirits. Adding bitters can tamp down an overly sweet drink, help cut through richness, unite disparate ingredients, and add an aromatic spiciness.”

Classic cocktails are bitters enjoying a rebirth, and bartenders are reaching for the ever-expanding range of handcrafted bitters—many made in small batches—to mix up modern drinks.

Kennedy and Donna Pires describe themselves as partners in love, life and the pursuit of the perfectly crafted cocktail. That ethos led them to launch the Crafty Bartender, an online store based in Toronto, which stocks a dozen brands of bitters. Top sellers for corporate clients, says Kennedy Pires, include Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters, Scrappy’s Cardamom and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole. Lately, home-bar enthusiasts have been experimenting with Urban Moonshine Maple Bitters, the Bitter End line of strong and spicy flavours and Bad Dog Bar Craft Sarsaparilla Dry Bitters.

Says Pires, “We still sell plenty of the tried and true classics … but the majority of individuals we supply are following the lead set by their favourite bartenders and stocking their home bars with a wide variety of the nouveau-style of bitters.”

Parsons’ first flirtation with bitters involved Angostura, but it was the taste of Seattle bartenders’ housemade bitters that fueled his passion for the so-called cocktail seasoning. “A few different people were playing around with cherry bitters, and then a bartender named David Nelson blew my mind with his wizard’s lab of bitters.” Their inspiration came from from greenmarkets, restaurant kitchens and ethnic enclaves.

“While not as pronounced as it is with regional foods, specific cities and regions across America have specific tics when it comes to drinking—whether it’s a specific cocktail, a certain spirit, or an overall style and approach to service behind the bar,” Parsons explains.

Bitters: a taste of Hawaii

In Honolulu, Mike Prasad and Kyle Reutner could win a 100-mile cocktail contest with their nascent brand, Hawaiian Bitters, which uses all-Hawaiian ingredients, including the base spirit. The pair were so certain that others would share their passion for refining and redefining Hawaiian cocktail culture scene, they launched their business on the crowd-funding site, Kickstarter. Within 45 days, the pair raised $20,000, thanks to 500 people who have “spoken for” almost 1,000 bottles of bitters in seven original flavours, including a curious combo: Kiawe Wood and Pineapple. Reutner suggested using it to elevate the Zombie, a fruity mix of rum and juices, “to impart a lot of smokiness to aged rum and play up the pineapple.”

The subtle nuances of bitters, and the range of flavours that run the gamut from lime to lavender and mint to mole, are part of what makes bitters so appealing to both pro-pourers and cocktail enthusiasts who appreciate a well-built drink. Many would agree that a cocktail just isn’t, if it’s not anointed with bitters.

Parsons gamely discloses his “death row” cocktail—a classic. “One last Old-Fashioned would do the trick. In particular, the one served at Prime Meats [Brooklyn, New York], my neighbourhood joint. Rye, homemade pear bitters, a hand-chipped chunk of ice, and a thick lemon peel garnish. And I’d make it last.”

Raising the bar: Brad Thomas Parsons on making and bringing bitters home

Take three: I pretty much insist you have three bottles on hand: Angostura, Peychaud’s, and an orange bitters. Those three can be employed in dozens of classic and contemporary cocktails and are essential to any bitters collection.

Triumphs: The Apple bitters and the Pear bitters from the book are my two favourites.

Disappointments: Despite many test batches, I couldn’t nail a concord grape formula, and peaches were tough for me too. 

Sublime: I had a curious raspberry-lime test batch that surprised me, but I’m embarrassed to say that I lost my notes and wasn’t able to replicate it for future batches.

Experimental: Someone once shared a bottle of homemade spinach bitters with me. That’s a flavour that I’m confident doesn’t need the bitters treatment. Φ

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