I’m laid up recovering from surgery. What better time to think and write about bitters?
Many cocktail recipes include a dash or two of this enigmatic product. For most people that amounts to a couple drops of Angostura bitters, sold everywhere in a small bottle with an iconic, oversized label. Nearly everyone has a bottle of this otherwise undrinkable substance tucked away, gathering dust. And yet it remains one of the least explored parts of drink-making.
If we agree that a cocktail, if made at all, should be made well, it stands to reason that we should know why we’re including bitters, and why leaving the well-trod road of Angostura for less well-traveled paths is a good idea.
In a nutshell, bitters are a combination of organic matter and alcohol, usually aromatic or savory botanicals. Typically very concentrated in flavor, bitters are measured in dashes or drops. Some were originally marketed as digestifs for relief from upset stomach and other maladies.
Packing so much flavor into so small a volume gives bitters their name. Some are downright awful taken on their own.
A bitters-like product popular in the San Francisco area of late, Fernet Branca is occasionally sold by the shot, and had mainly on a dare. It’s nasty stuff. Yet despite its harshness, a drop or two added to a Manhattan recipe gives that cocktail a lovely mint aftertaste, which kicks in just as the whiskey flavor fades.
Not all bitters are terribly harsh on their own, however. Orange bitters, and particularly vanilla bitters are quite nicely sweet, though one would still be hard-pressed to drink even a mouthful neat.
So why use a cocktail ingredient that’s so powerfully flavored and, on it’s own, so often harsh? In a word, depth. Bitters adds depth to the flavor of just about any cocktail. Since we’re hand-crafting the flavor of our drink when mixing a cocktail, not simply slapping together booze, mixer and ice, the individual flavors matter. Enhancing a cocktail with bitters makes its flavor deeper, richer.
It’s important to note that I mix my cocktails by parts. My basic part, or measure, varies from ¾- to one-and-one-half-ounce, resulting in a cocktail of 3- to 4-ounces. I don’t keep large cocktail glasses at home, and I don’t mind sending one off the bar half-filled when using someone else’s glassware. Better to make two and enjoy each cold in turn than to make one big sloppy drink that finishes unpleasantly warm.
In my size drink, one or two drops of bitters suffice. If you’re mixing larger drinks you’ll use a larger base measure, so up your bitters component accordingly.
I’ve had one of those “forever” bottles of Angostura bitters in my liquor cabinet for ages. It hasn’t gotten any lighter lately, because Kelly gifted me a collection of six bitters from Bittercube, a boutique bitters manufacturer in Milwaukee, this past Chrismas. Bittercube produces their own unique formulations for orange, “cherry bark” vanilla, blackstrap molasses, two variety of Jamaican and one they call “Bolivar.” The last bears a lovely floral aroma, and enhances cocktails as much by its scent as its flavor, I’ve found.
This six-bottle variety pack includes one-ounce bottles each topped with a dropper cap, allowing for simple measurement experimentation. Bittercube also sells each bitters product in a full 5-ounce bottle with a “dash” top, as well as each 1-ounce sample bottle individually. They thoughtfully include suggested uses for each of these unique flavor enhancers packaged with the set, giving mixologists a starting point.
There’e really no wrong way to use these products. I’d add one guideline that’s always wisely applied: use them sparingly. A dash is a drop. Two drops is usually enough, and I’ve never found it useful combining more than three bitters in a single cocktail. I have, though, found the right three to be quite entertaining in cocktails otherwise largely devoid of flavor, say, a dry vodka Martini.
Therein lies the joy of mixology: experimentation. For example, orange bitters are often suggested as an accompaniment to whiskey-based cocktails. While I’ve found Bittercube’s suggestions useful, it’s when I’ve plunged headlong off that path that I’ve obtained the most interesting results.
My go-to Manhattan recipe includes two drops orange bitters, and one drop vanilla. The vanilla obtains a sweeter expression of the aromatized sweet vermouth I use, while the orange deepens the whiskey barrel flavor of my favorite rye. With just a few drops of otherwise unremarkable liquid this simple cocktail becomes a sublime expression of the classic drink, and a welcome end-of-the-week reward.
Another interesting result is obtained by adding Bolivar bitters to the classic Vesper recipe. The mild citrus and bitter tang of Lillet Blanc, or better, Kina L’Aero D’Or is enhanced with the fine floral essence imparted by just one drop of this bitters.
I’ve found a simple gin Martini, mixed to my taste at about a six-to-one gin/vermouth ratio, takes on a very satisfying depth and uniqueness of flavor with the addition of two drops black strap molasses bitters. It’s an odd combination, but I think the flavor interest springs from the contrast between gin’s botanicals and the black strap’s rich, almost burnt sugar flavor. It’s an enjoyable variation on one of my favorite cocktails when I’m looking for something different to sip.
Using a light hand with the bitters keeps their flavor contribution a pleasant accompaniment. They shine through the finished cocktail as but a third or fourth component. Sometimes the bitters flavor shines only as a remnant, an echo of the cocktail. The aforementioned Fernet Branca in a Manhattan is one example.
I know I’ve hit the right combination when I get a pleased smile and hear “oh!” a few seconds after the first mouthful of drink is consumed.
As you can see, the possibilities are many. Take your favorite cocktail preparation, add a few drops of well-crafted bitters and see where it takes you. Then change it up and try a different path. You might find that your “favorite” cocktail has multiple expressions!