Bitters are the salt and pepper of the cocktail world, an essential part of every good bartender’s toolkit. Yet few drinkers know much about these flavor-packed infusions. It’s time to get acquainted with the unsung hero ingredient that transforms drinks with just a few drops.
They say that good things come in small packages. When it comes to cocktail bitters, this is true. Adding just a dash brings depth, balance and complexity to drinks, the equivalent to seasoning in cooking.
Originally marketed as a medicinal tonic, bitters are high proof infusions of botanicals and other aromatic ingredients. Gentian, wormwood and cassia are common bittering agents that anchor the concoctions, but all manner of aromatic herbs, fruits, flowers, seeds, barks and spices can be used – as a single ingredient or a multitude. The botanicals are steeped in strong neutral alcohol, which acts as both a solvent and preservative.
“Bitters are the most natural way to extract flavors and suspend them almost indefinitely in time and space,” says Lauren Mote, an award-winning mixologist and co-founder of Bittered Sling. “Cocktail bitters are the foil that bring flavors together; they create harmonious balance between ingredients.”
Bitters were listed in the first recorded cocktail recipe, printed back in 1806, which called for four ingredients: “A stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
For centuries before this, though, bitters were consumed as medicine. Botanical ingredients, believed to have curative qualities, were steeped in alcohol to extract and preserve them. Versions have been traced as far back as Ancient Egypt, and during the Middle Ages they were taken for a raft of ailments, even the Bubonic plague.
By the 18th century, London was awash with patent ‘elixirs’ and ‘tinctures’ claiming to be hangover cure-alls, commonly mixed with wine or brandy. Even during the Temperance movement, Americans were putting bitters into their spirits to make poor-quality bootlegged booze taste better.
Dubious claims aside, bitters packaging from this era has become highly collectible, with some rare bottles fetching tens of thousands of dollars at auction.
Today, Angostura is the best known of all cocktail bitters. It’s a key ingredient in everything from a Manhattan to an Old Fashioned.
It dates back to 1824, when Doctor Johann Siegert, a surgeon in the Venezuelan army, served it as a stimulant for troops and to ward off malaria. He lived in the town of Angostura, hence the name, but later established a factory in Trinidad to make his concoction. The recipe is a closely guarded secret, locked in a vault and entrusted to only five people.
Peychaud’s is another household name and almost as old as Angostura. This gentian-based, floral-scented bitters – most famously used in the Sazerac cocktail – was created by a New Orleans pharmacist, who prescribed it for everything from stomach aches to malaria by day, and with absinthe and brandy when he moonlighted as a bartender come evening.
Call it a comeback
Thanks to the craft cocktail resurgence, there has been a renewed interest in bitters. The last decade has seen a boom in new craft producers around the world, including Bob’s in London, The Bitter Truth in Germany, and Urban Moonshine and Bittermens in the U.S. Some bitters-focused bars have even sprung up, such as Amor y Amargo in New York or Meadow in Oregon.
“I definitely think people are becoming more interested in bitters,” says Amba Lamb, The Ritz-Carlton bartender who represented Cayman at global cocktail-making championship Diageo World Class 2017. “We put our selection of bitters out on the bar at Seven and it is often a talking point. I think many bars are expanding their range of bitters too. It used to be everyone would have Angostura and that was about it; now 20 or more bitters is not an uncommon sight – some commercial and some homemade.”
“It used to be everyone would have Angostura and that was about it; now 20 or more bitters is not an uncommon sight – some commercial and some homemade”
Amba even makes a few of her own blends. “I have recently done a coffee and Cacao, which is amazing with a rum and bourbon Old Fashioned. I also do a chamomile and white pepper bitters, and a local sorrel bitters which is nice in a long refreshing drink.”
This year, Cayman became one of just six countries to sell Canadian-made Bittered Sling, part of the new wave of small-batch artisan cocktail bitters. Stocked at Jacques Scott’s West Bay store, Bittered Sling’s inventive flavors range from classic botanicals such as Grapefruit & Hops and Orange & Juniper, to the downright beguiling Moondog (dried aromatic chilis, lime leaves, wild oregano and smoked black pepper), Denman (wok-fired allspice, cloves, South Asian floral pepper and anise for a bright aromatic bitter finish) or Western Haskap (a herbaceous, earthy character with anise, cocoa and licorice).
The brainchild of Lauren Mote (named Canada’s Bartender of the Year 2015) and celebrated chef Jonathan Chovancek, a husband-and-wife team based in Vancouver, creating bitters began as a personal hobby.
“We would deconstruct tasting notes of wine and food and then rebuild them with spice and botanicals when we started dating,” Jonathan recalls. “Then we started to make bitters that would represent each other’s personalities. My spice and botanical description of Lauren became Moondog Latin American Bitters and her description of me became Kensington Aromatic Bitters.”
Naturally, each blend lends itself to different spirits. For example, Plum & Rootbeer perfectly enhances a Negroni or Mai Tai, while Malagasy Chocolate is a match made in heaven with whisky. Whatever the pairing, a little goes a long way: only 1-2ml is needed in each glass for the flavor notes to shine through.
Bitters also work their magic in sparkling soft drinks and even food. Try adding a dash to ice-cream and sorbets, use to give a marinade or vinaigrette dressing an edge, or substitute for other extracts such as vanilla, peppermint or orange blossom in baking recipes.
“Bitters also work their magic in sparkling soft drinks and even food.”
Bitters may not seem the most obvious delicacy, as bitter flavors often signal toxins in the natural world, hence why animals avoid them. Yet, in small doses, bitter plants have a medicinal, beneficial effect on humans, especially for easing digestion. We have evolved to understand and enjoy them in (usually) the right quantities – just think of coffee, kale, cacao and grapefruit.
In fact, many master mixologists view our nuanced appreciation of bitters as a prime example of the evolution of the human palate.
As James Bitterman, author of “Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari” writes: “Bitter-tasting foods are dangerous. They are also essential for health… Our intrigue with bitter flavors is part of the exhilarating dance we play with food and drink, the enterprise of deriving nutrition and stimulation from a bountiful but occasionally treacherous natural world.”
A rookie’s guide to making bitters
I feel like a kid in a very strange and grown-up sweet shop. On the table before me are piles of raw ingredients: a veritable forest of dried leaves and barks; a spice selection that would do a souk proud; curls of citrus peel and paper-thin flower petals. Some are familiar pantry staples – fennel seeds, cloves, peppercorns – others are entirely new to me – barberry root, cichona and epazote. Getting this selection through immigration must have been interesting.
Canadian brand Bittered Sling has set up this workshop for the Marriott Beach Resort’s food and beverage team. After a seminar on the history and structure of bitters from co-founder Lauren Mote, plus a little sampling of the professional versions, we are armed with Mason jars and set loose to mix our own concoctions from this botanical smorgasbord. Lauren warns the group not to get too carried away: “It’s a science, just as it is to make a Hollandaise sauce.”
The process is not complicated per se – it is a case of adding raw ingredients straight into a clear base spirit (in this case, Smirnoff vodka) and then leaving to steep – but the key is layering the different ingredient groups in the correct fractions. The golden rule is 15 percent fresh ingredients, 13 percent dried fruit, 10 percent cold spice and 10 warm spice, and 5 percent bitter bark or roots. The remaining 46 percent is, of course, the vodka. The contrasting flavor profiles of the botanicals need to balance and harmonize on the palate.
After a good few minutes of sniffing and prodding at the miscellaneous seeds, kernels and sticks, I decide to aim for an exotic, citrus-spiced bitters, drawing on my love for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors. Into the jar of vodka go green cardamom pods; Lapsang souchong tea leaves; orange peel, both fresh and dried; pink peppercorns; Persian black lime and dandelion, keeping to the recommended percentages.
Lauren lends her expert nose to my work-in-progress and she seems to approve, suggesting I just add some gentian, a bitter-tasting herb, to balance and complete the bitters. Apparently, my finished blend should work nicely with a clear, dry spirit such as gin.
I take the sealed jar home to rest in a cool, dark cupboard for four weeks, remembering to give it a little shake daily.
When a month has passed, I strain the bitters and add a few drops to my usual G&T. The moment of truth: Not only do the bitters add a complex aroma, the citrus and warming spice notes seem to accentuate the citrus botanicals already in the Sipsmith gin. Overall, it doesn’t mask the usual taste but simply adds another moreish, savory layer, pepping up my favorite aperitif.