Posted on | September 26, 2013
Written by | Warren Bobrow
Bitters. The very name signifies something… distasteful. But have no fear. Bitters—concentrated derivatives of herbs, flowers and spices—originated as healing products and have been advocated for more than two hundred years for all sorts of ailments from the digestive tract to general malaise. The original application of bitters was to heal digestive disorders that ran rampant in the days before refrigeration. In the modern mixology context, the healing qualities have faded from awareness, but the transformative power of bitters remains—and fit in perfectly for today’s adventurous mixers and imbibers.
These intense liquids, so potent that they are meted out in drops and dashes, are to cocktails what the spices do for a cook, adding depth and intrigue while balancing other intense flavors. Multiplying at a dizzying rate and rife with exotic ingredients, bitters are the ingredients of the minute even for the home bartender.
And, packaged in tiny bottles, bitters harken back to the original cocktail bar—run by a pharmacist or apothecary for the preparation of restorative potions. Modern day bitters are not such a far cry from the healing amalgamations of the past. (A tall glass of soda water and bitters remains a favorite home remedy for indigestion and even hangovers.) In fact, one might argue that bitters are finally achieving their rightful status, as secret flavor weapons in the arsenals of today’s fearless mixologists.
Best of all, there are so many! Some bars make their own bitters, but with the vast array on the market the quality level is so high that making them from scratch, although noble in expression, seems like time that could be better invested mixing up new drinks. That said, here is a guide to the state of the art in bitters.
Europe & Beyond
Angostura Bitters, from Trinidad, are the original bitters along with Peychaud’s. Angostura is still used as a curative in times of stomach distress as well as for cocktail augmentation and culinary uses. The flavor profile is part spice, part sweet and all historic. It’s tropical and bold in your Manhattan or your Rob Roy. Combine with a bit of dark rum for a lovely marinade on fish or poultry.
Bittered Sling, sustainably produced by a couple from Vancouver, Canada, are intensely concentrated bitters that possess deep inner secrets, drop by drop. A Negroni shines with their Grapefruit and Hops bitters. Or perhaps a Gin Fizz with Bittered Sling Plum & Root Beer.
Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters (France) are a unique combination of the elegantly spicy pimento pepper along with handcrafted anise from neo-alchemist Ted Breaux. It’s a gorgeous layered product with culinary applications as well as cocktailian pursuits; try drizzling over sliced strawberries or a dish of vanilla gelato.
Dr. Adam Emlegirab (Scotland) builds his significant bitters according to a highly personal ethos of harnessing historically correct flavor. Adam is all-authentic in his pursuit of these cocktail augmentations. His Teapot Bitters scream out for drinks made with Scotch whisky and honey simple syrup.
The Bitter Truth (Germany) has unlocked the inner meaning of cocktail enhancement and flavorings. These elixirs are closely allied with the original recipes for bitter healing spirits. Their Creole Bitters are the German example of the classic Peychaud’s Bitters from another century and country. Their Lemon Bitters speak clearly of the oily zest of the lemon; their Aromatic Bitters add a wonderful kick to any cocktails that call for Scotch, and four or five drops in a glass of punch makes for a robust finish. Retailers should also note that The Bitter Truth’s highly desirable (TSA-approved) Traveler’s Set makes a great gift.
5 by 5 Bitters, handcrafted in Chico, CA, include Aromatic Bitters that call attention to the more mystical approach to the depths of the bitter in a cocktail, while their Citrus Bitters are ever so lively in a gin and tonic. The Aromatic and the Citrus add clarity to a margarita or a tall rum and soda with simple syrup. This well-made line is quite potent, so please
Arizona Bitters Lab makes the most uncommon Figgy Pudding bitters that are part Christmas time dessert and part crashing thunderstorm in the high desert. Try a few drops in a cocktail of proper (London Dry) gin with freshly squeezed orange juice and a splash of Perrier. Their Mas Mole is more, more, more than just the normal chocolate and spices found in most mole bitters
on the market.
For Basement Bitters, New York State’s Tuthilltown Distillery takes local maple syrup, herbs, spices and their signature Hudson Rye whiskey as a base then barrel ages these gorgeous bitters in a seasoned whiskey barrel. The Basement Bitters shout for a Manhattan or even a Mint Julep to let loose the maple and sarsaparilla flavors.
Bitter End Bitters offer an explosion of flavor that can be quite frankly overpowering with spices and heat. Use only three drops and all will be well. With flavors like Curry, Memphis Barbeque, Thai, Moroccan, Chesapeake Bay and Jamaican Jerk, these bitters are a crashing wake-up call to bland cocktails. Make a gin and tonic with Q Tonic and three drops of the Curry Bitters over the top… then stand back.
Bittercube Bitters, with flavors like Cherry Bark Vanilla and Bolivar, are anything but ordinary. They have several varieties, all deeply concentrated and potent. Their Jamaican Bitters send your palate to a far-off island paradise where the locals all squeeze their juices fresh for slurps of dark rum.
Bittermens Bitters—made in New Orleans, the birthplace of the American cocktail—are truly powerful teachers of flavor and disposition. The limited edition New Orleans Coffee Bitters, woven with charred French chicory, transport the drinker to the deepwater bayou. Bittermens offers a full range of seasonal flavors and styles.
Bitters, Old Men are ancient tinctures in very modern flavors such as macadamia, tobacco and selected herbs and exotic spices. Few bitters on the market approach the range of flavors (over ten expressions) in this handcrafted line. Try Macadamia Bitters in your favorite Tiki rum-based cocktail for an exotic finish!
Boy Drinks World is a strange enough name for passionately made cocktail bitters. Their Serrano Bitters are an electrifying trip to a land where flavor rules and the grapefruit bitters are the juicy and oily peel of the most sumptuous grapefruits ever. There is a Passion Fruit that charms your rum punch with meditation and deep inner beauty!
Dram Bitters are a step into the original apothecary with flavors like Honey Chamomile and Hair of the Dog, these bitters are intensely flavored and quite charming in a cocktail with brown liquors as the base. And most delicious dripped over a glass of Belgian Beer like Duval.
Fee Brothers Bitters unlock the mystery between merely drinking and drinking well. Flavors include Mint, Peach, Plum, Rhubarb, Whiskey Barrel Aged, Black Walnut and Aromatic, plus citrus flavors like West Indian Orange and Lemon. Available in most every state, Fee Brothers Bitters give depth and pleasure to the bartender and the drinker.
Hella Bitter hails from Brooklyn, a hotbed for all things craft. Hella Citrus Bitters and their magical Aromatic Bitters with just a touch of anise are otherworldly in cocktails that just scream for assertive flavors, such as the ones from intense brown liquors.
Junior Merino, aka the Liquid Chef, is legendary in the on-premise industry. His brilliance as an alchemist shines with his bitters named Scotch (Single Malt), showcasing smoky grilled pineapple and vanilla with a touch of orange marmalade.
Napa Valley Bitters Works offers a full range of bartender-tested, spirit-based, deeply potent flavor enhancements; they have over a dozen highly expressive bitters. Their Cucumber Bitters, Almond-Orange Bitters and the mysterious and quite Pavlovian Love Potion #29 all do really enlightening things to your drinks, each in their own unique way. They have over a dozen highly expressive bitters.
Peychaud’s Bitters, along with Angostura, are the old men on the mountain. Indispensible in a Sazerac, intensely flavored and colored, Peychaud’s Bitters have provided a snapshot of the inner vision of New Orleans for over 100 years. A powerful digestive when used in larger quantities and a beautiful red color that looks fabulous over vanilla ice cream.
Adam Seger, a master behind the stick, also produces profound bitters as Rare Botanical Bitters Co. produces Adam’s ultra luxury bitters with guts! The sultry Truffle Bitters are gorgeous with drinks meant to accompany well-aged beef. They coax the depths out of vodka and can finish a glass of Scotch into places not yet discovered.
Cocktail scribe Gary Regan was unhappy with the quality of orange bitters on the market so he set out to create his own. His Regan’s Bitters #6 (with label boast “the Finest Bitters for man or beast”) are a revelation of the orange. Highly concentrated and quite at home in a Ramos Gin Fizz. Intense stuff; add a few drops over your favorite milk punch or even a cup of hot tea.
RX Bitters Company from San Diego offers two varieties, one labeled “A” for Aromatic and the other “S” For Sarsaparilla. They are deeply concentrated with a finish that goes on and on. I would use the Aromatic wherever Angostura is required and the Sarsaparilla when your tummy is a bit out of whack from all the bitters you’ve tasted!
Urban Moonshine organic Bitters—with Motherwort, Rose and Linden—recall a time when bitters were powerful healing curatives. Their sweetly aromatic Maple Bitters are brilliant.