Back To Basics: Bitters 101

Stuck in a rut with your cocktail crafting? Consider adding bitters to your home bar. These mysterious little bottles may be what gives the drinks at your favorite bar the kick you can’t seem to replicate at home.

Think of bitters in a cocktail the same way you think of extracts in baking: they don’t contribute the dominant flavor, but they add depth and complexity. You wouldn’t describe chocolate-chip cookies as “vanilla-flavored” but every recipe I have ever seen calls for vanilla extract.

Once considered essential to every cocktail, bitters fell by the wayside some years ago, but now these potent, flavorful liquors have taken a new form and are making a comeback.

Traditional bitters are commonly distilled from aromatic herbs and roots, which give them their strong and often bitter flavor. They are generally around 15% alcohol and were originally touted as stomach medicines back in the 1800s. The Grandfather of all bitters is the Angostura recipe. Angostura are not actually flavored with Angostura bark, rather they are named after the town where they were first produced: Angostura, Venezuela. True Angostura bitters can only be made by the House of Angostura, and the exact recipe is a closely guarded secret. Although they can’t use the name, most bitters manufacturers make their own version of Angostura that can be used in its place in cocktail recipes. If a recipe just says “bitters” and doesn’t specify a specific type, then it is referring to this classic flavor.

Now bitters are making a comeback. Many modern manufacturers, like Bittermens and the Bitter Truth, are distilling bitters with unexpected new flavors ranging from fruits like cherry or grapefruit all the way to chocolate and habanero.

Traditional, herbaceous Angostura bitters play a key role in many classic cocktails, but there are so many different types of bitters available today that there is no need to limit your experimentation to the old favorites. Although you shouldn’t drink a glass of bitters on their own, you should be sure to taste the bitters you are working with when deciding what to mix them with. In general you want to aim to use the bitters to either enhance or contrast with the star flavors of your drink. Don’t limit yourself to just cocktails! Try adding a dash of the classic bitters to your favorite vinaigrette to give an herby kick to a salad. I added a few dashes of the hellfire habanero to a classic gazpacho for a little heat and some smoky undertones. One thing to keep in mind while you are shaking and stirring: a little goes a long way.

Check out these recipes to get inspired, then try creating some of your own!

 

A simple classic:
Champagne Cocktail with Angostura-Style Bitters

1 sugar cube
Bitters (I used The Bitter Truth Old Time Aromatic bitters)
Champagne
Lemon or orange twist, for garnish

To make the cocktail:
Soak the sugar cube in Angostura bitters and drop into a Champagne flute. Top with Champagne or a sparkling wine. Garnish with a lemon or orange twist.

 

The new normal:
Honeydew Mezcal Margarita with Habanero Bitters (Adapted from liqurious.notcot.org)

1 tablespoon fine sea salt (for the rims of the glasses)
Lime wedge
1 oz. mezcal
1 ½ oz. honeydew puree
1 oz. lime juice
3/4 oz. (20 mL) St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
Several dashes Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub bitters

To make the honeydew puree: Cut a honeydew into chunks (discard the rind). Place the chunks in the bowl of a food processor or blender and process until very liquidy. You may need to stop and scrape down the sides of the food processor. If you enjoy a little bit of texture, just use the puree as is, but if you prefer a more refined cocktail then strain the puree through a fine sieve, discard the leftover pulp, and reserve the juice in a bottle or Tupperware. You should have about 2 1/4 cups of honeydew juice, enough to make 8 margaritas. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To make the cocktails: Place the salt on a small plate and spread. Moisten the rims of the glasses with the lime wedge and dip the rims in the salt. Set aside. Shake the mezcal, honeydew juice, lime juice, elderflower liqueur, and Hellfire Habanero Shrub bitters with ice cubes until a thin layer of frost appears on the outside of the shaker. Pour into the prepared glasses. If you so desire, garnish each glass with 1-3 melon balls speared onto a cocktail pick. Serve immediately.