LOVE&’S ULTIMATE HOME BAR GUIDE: COCKTAIL BITTERS
If you’ve found yourself at a Craft Cocktail bar worth its salt lately, you may have noticed a row of small bottles filled with a variety of different tinctures near the “well”. Those colorful and nicely packaged little bottles are an ever growing selection of bitters. Bitters have been around for hundreds of years, once used for medicinal purposes, they began being used in cocktails in the late 18th century and most prominently in the late 1800’s. They were thought to cure everything from headaches and hangovers to upset stomachs and even hiccups.
By definition, bitters are high proof alcohol, or sometimes glycerin, based flavoring that are infused with a variety of botanicals, barks, seeds and herbs. I like to think of them as the salt and pepper of drinks. Imagine a roasted chicken without salt and pepper, bland and unappetizing. A Manhattan made without bitters is vapid and insipid. The addition of bitters makes the vermouth and whiskey sing, they become seamlessly married and play off each other, bringing out each other’s best qualities. The most common botanicals used in the production of bitters are gentian and cinchona (bittering agents), in addition, clove, wormwood, bitter orange, cardamom and many others are often used.
The variety of bitters, both in brands and styles, seems endless these days, but that wasn’t the case until recently. Only three brands survived Prohibition, Fee Brothers; an all glycerin brand, Peychaud’s and the most iconic; Angostura. For the better part of the last half of the 20th century, a lowly bottle of Angostura languished on the shelves of most bars in America. With its white paper label and bright yellow cap, it collected dust. Sadly many bartenders were often unaware of its magic, some even afraid of its intensity. There is nothing more sad than watching a bartender make a Manhattan or Old Fashioned and they fail to commit to a fully dashing this magic elixir. The bottle should be ceremoniously flung upside down while dashed, at least twice, in a completely vertical thrust. The dark brooding flavors of clove and cinnamon are unmistakable and Angostura to this day is the leader of the Aromatic style of bitters.
In most pre-prohibition cocktail books, bitters were called for in predominately dark spirit based drinks, gin was of course the exception. Adversely, the gamut of options now range far and wide. There really are no limitations to the combinations and pairings other than one’s own lack of imagination. There are hundreds of artisans popping up everywhere creating their own interpretation of bitters and taking their inspiration from all around them. A common misconception is that bitters will undoubtedly make your drink bitter or that all bitters are just that. With the wild west of bitters creation going on, one can find a variety to suit all palates and spirits.
Gabrielle was the head bartender at Laguna Beach’s Broadway and now owns her shop, The Mixing Glass, in Costa Mesa, CA at the OC Mix