Cocktails have been making a resurgence in the past decade or so, and with that the original essential ingredient of classic cocktails, bitters, is also making a reappearance. Seemingly insignificant due to their tiny drops, bitters can make all the difference to the flavour profile of any drink. Serious mixologists and bartenders across the globe are reintroducing patrons to the delights offered by the wide variety of bitters, often creating bespoke bitters themselves, to craft the classics, as well as inventing new offerings.
Herewith, a quick overview of the basics of bitters.
Don’t be fooled by it’s small bottle and seemingly clumsy packaging, the popular Angostura bitters are anything but meek. And the role of bitters in the beverage world is anything but disposable. With a 44% alcohol content and a potent flavour punch, their absence would mean the classic Manhattan would lack major depth and lingering heat. Another hit would be taken by the traditional champagne cocktail, which would lose its trademark amber hue and coveted complexity.
Bitters, much like their name, offer a corresponding flavour. A macerated mixture of herbs, spices and (sometimes) orange peel, this mighty mash in small amounts adds heat and aroma to cocktails as well as a finishing flare to some foods.
But as a stand-alone flavour, bitter is not a trait one would necessarily describe as desirable.
“Hey man, I’m really craving that super bitter (insert item here) right now. “
I don’t think any one has ever said that.
So then why would anyone start using bitters in the first place?
Believe it or not bitter, as a flavour, plays a pivotal role in our palettes. For example, in cooking. When bitter flavours are combined with fat, both their flavour molecules end up balancing each other out, meaning one prevents the other from being too overbearing or monotonous. These flavour trade-offs also apply to the drink world and just a few small drops of bitters are an almighty addition that can make or break a cocktail.
So it’s no surprise that serious bartenders are now taking this drink defining ingredient and making it themselves. And instead of just mimicking the store bought variety, experimenting with ingredients means the flavour profiles and possible uses for them are now endless.
It’s safe to say, after it’s long standing resilience paired with this new resurgence, bitters are not going nowhere, fast. But if you’re new to the bitters-sphere and want to give them a try, here are a few popular brands and drink suggestions to wet your palate. And remember, bitters are potent: a drop or two will do!
Most popular, well-known brand of bitters. Flavour is described as Aromatic.
Popular Cocktail: Manhattan, Old Fashioned
Try: Use it to “round up” a rum and Coke
Although Bitters are alcoholic, with their miniscule dashes offering up the flavour, they are popular in less alcoholic drinks as well. An Australian pub favourite is Lemon, Lime & Bitters – Sprite, a splash of lime cordial and a few dashes of Angostura Bitters on ice.
Sweeter and less potent than Angostura. Flavour is Aromatic, floral notes.
Popular Cocktail: Sazerac (A New Orleans twist on an “old fashioned” featuring absinthe)
Try: Over ice with gin and muddled raspberries
An Italian liqueur that moonlights as bitters. Flavour is strong, sometimes off-putting, orange flavour.
Popular Cocktail: Negroni
Ease your way into it: For first timers, try a small amount on ice, mixed with Italian orange soda
Regan’s Orange Bitters No 6 or Angostura Orange. Flavour is a combination of orange peel and warm, aromatic spices.
Popular Cocktail: Original Martini
Try: A couple drops to top off equal parts sherry and dry vermouth. Garnish with maraschino cherries.
The Bitter Truth
Started in 2006, this German company is the new kid in town offering a variety of bitter flavours and winning awards around the globe for their offerings.
Famous for: Celery Bitters – The initial flavour of celery is dominant, leading into a complex palate with aromas of lemongrass, orange peel and ginger.
Popular Cocktail: Bloody Mary
Try: adding a couple of dashes to your Gin & Tonic for an added punch of flavour.
Notable extra: The Bitter Truth offers customers a Bitters Traveler’s Pack, a collection of their five most popular bitters in bottles compliant with air travel regulations for hand luggage. It includes: Original Celery Biters, Orange Bitters, Creole Bitters, Old Time Aromatic Bitters and Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters. Packing this handy little box will ensure your basic cocktail needs are covered with ease.
Now that you have the basics covered, do not be afraid of the cocktail menu! Next time you see chocolate bitters or basil bitters listed in an aptly named cocktail, give them a try too.