Posted on | December 22, 2015
Written by | W. Blake Gray
Shelf-friendly and packed with flavor, bitters continue to pique interest on- and off-premise.
The bottles don’t take up much shelf space, stay good for years, and draw customers to your store. For wine and spirits shops, bitters are the dream product.
Five years ago, most stores only needed one type of bitters, and there were only a few to choose from. “When I started making bitters in 2006, you only had Angostura [widely] available,” said Stephan Berg, owner of The Bitter Truth. “Occasionally you could find Peychaud’s, which was already owned by Buffalo Trace. Sometimes you could find Fee Bros.”
Now, there’s a bewildering array of brands and types.
“We have a couple dozen different bitters on the shelves right now,” says Jesse Salazar, wine director for Union Square Wine & Spirits in New York. “They don’t take up a lot of floor space. It’s easy to just try it and carry more of the ones that sell.”
That said, you might as well taste them. Ashley Bryant of Milwaukee’s Bittercube recommends first putting a few drops in the palm of one hand, then rubbing your palms together and sniffing the aroma. To taste, put a couple drops on the back of your hand. Just as you would with wine, taste the simpler bitters first, and if there’s something spicy, taste it last.
The Bitter Appeal
Several types of customers are drawn in by bitters, says Doug Charles, owner of Compass Wines in the Seattle suburbs. Bartenders look for obscure types they haven’t seen before. Home cocktail enthusiasts try to fill out their shelf of essential flavors. And increasingly, people use them to flavor non-alcoholic beverages, most notably soda water, Charles says: “The ones that are most popular with them are the single flavor bitters: chocolate, peach, lime, lavender.”
But single-flavor bitters are just one kind, and it’s important to hit multiple categories, because the celery bitters that are perfect for a Bloody Mary might not be everyone’s fancy in a Rob Roy.
“There are very few bitters that are good for many kinds of drinks,” Berg says.He defines the main groups as: aromatic; citrus (orange is essential; grapefruit is also worthwhile); fruit (don’t go without peach); vegetable (e.g., celery and cucumber); and mixes (Creole is their most popular).
The last category, mixed flavor bitters, is the newest, and has of some of the most bewildering options—but also some of the most popular. Bryant says Bittercube’s best-selling flavor is Cherry Bark Vanilla, which goes well with whiskey drinks. Their Corazón is flavored with coffee and five types of chiles.
Bitters can be made with white whiskey, neutral grain spirits or overproof rum, and that might affect the affinity a type of bitters has for different drinks—another reason to carry a wider selection. Fee Bros. bitters are unusual in that they have a glycerine base, which means they might not be as long-lived, but on the other hand the company has been making them for 150 years.
In addition to being a producer of bitters, Berg is a collector, and says, “As long as you keep the cap closed, those bitters will stay for a very long time—20, 30, 40 years. I still have bitters from the 1900s. And they’re still good.”