Bitters Suite

A growing collection of available brands helps bartenders hit the high notes

A growing collection of available brands helps bartenders hit the high notes

Innovation or Revival.

Either it’s new, or it’s new all over again. Current trends in the food and beverage industry can be divided into those two categories. Marking both molecular gastronomy and mixology in the innovation column will get little argument. The resurgence of nearly-forgotten cocktail recipes, micro-distilleries (featured in in the Mix Winter 2009), glassware styles long-abandoned, and aromatic bitters fall firmly in the revival column. However fresh the influx of bitters (both commercial and house-made) may seem, it is actually a return to original cocktail techniques and recipes of bartenders from the 1800s. In his book, Harry Johnson’s New and Improved Bartenders’ Manual printed in 1900, Johnson listed eight principal bitters as must-haves for any respectable bar. Quite a switch from the one, lonely, dog-eared bottle of Angostura waiting patiently on a dusty shelf in every corner bar, pulled from near-oblivion only for hiccups, an upset stomach, or that rare Old Fashioned drinker.

When I told a friend I was writing an article on understanding bitters, she proclaimed emphatically, “Ew, I hate bitters!” Sadly, bitters had indeed met their bitter end when she dumped an indiscriminate amount of chocolate bitters into an unsuspecting margarita – with disastrous results. Go figure.

Being ever inquisitive, I had to ask, “Do you usually have a little lime with your chocolate?” I think the conversation may have ended there if she had said yes. What could I offer such a misguided palate? Fortunately the story was simply this: curious, she had picked up a bottle of Bittermens Xocolatl chocolate bitters from the bar rail, smelled them, deemed them potentially delicious, and plunked copious dashes into the margarita she was drinking. one can only imagine the rest. “Helping to avoid this sort of flavor train wreck is exactly the goal of this article. We want to give the on-premise bartender or bar manager a better understanding of the role and applications of aromatic bitters in cocktail-making,” I explained.

Spurred by my friend’s earlier experience, we began listing all the compatible flavors and existing drinks we could think of that would likely pair perfectly with a few dashes of chocolate bitters. Oranges, berries, or pretty much any sort of nut – now you’re talking! Banana liqueur, caramel liqueur – we were getting excited! An Old Fashioned – yeah! “A bourbon Manhattan with a dash of maraschino too!” she cried. “This is easy and fun!” my friend exclaimed and, we soon realized, very delicious. I don’t remember exactly what happened next. Oh, the things we do in the name of research!

Bitters can best be defined as a highly flavorful, highly concentrated mixture of a base spirit and aromatic essences and oils extracted usually from roots, plants, herbs, fruits or seeds, and added in dashes to cocktails to create new flavor profiles. Bitters were medicinal in origin, are now produced around the world and are increasingly de rigueur for the serious mixologist.