Layers of Flavor: Exploring Artisan Bitters
Bitter is a word we are all too familiar with in the northeast, but there is a way to say bitter and smile, with a cocktail.
I’m talking about those mysterious bottles that you may see kicking around the dusty corners of your favorite bar. Paper-wrapped, medicinal looking (and smelling) and up until the last decade or so, widely underutilized. Welcome to the Bitter Age of the Cocktail. Now, bitters are everywhere. They can be found at the local grocery store, spice shops and liquor stores. Restaurants often make bitters of their own and there are even handsome, longhaired farmers starting their own bitters companies.
But the question remains: what are bitters?
An appreciation for bitters starts with an understanding of the cocktail.
Structure and balance are essential. A well-made cocktail will have all sides: a spirit, an acid, and a part to round out the edges. Think of bitters as the salt and pepper of cocktail making. Sure, a steak on the grill tastes great, but add salt and pepper and even the most novice of consumers can taste and appreciate the difference.
Bitters are able to add layers of flavor to a cocktail with just a few dashes. The key to the complexity of flavor lies in how bitters are made.
Bitters are basically an infusion. In a broad stroke, start with one part spirit, one part flavor, and one part bitter.
The spirit is usually a high-proof alcohol (bitters can be made without alcohol, albeit a trickier process). The most common spirit used is a neutral grain alcohol, but 100-proof vodka can be used as a substitute. A higher proof spirit helps to hold the flavors over time.
Flavors used in bitters vary widely and explain the expanding niche market of bitters production. In the past, there were limited general flavors and brands, typically an orange bitter, the famed Angostura, and Peychauds of New Orleans. Now, any fruit flavor imagined can be found and plenty of adaptations therein, such as barrel-aged bitters and even dry-hopped bitters.
Bittering agents can come in many forms. They can be flowers, roots, grasses or herbs, anything with astringency. All of these ingredients are combined carefully, left to steep, filtered and bottled.
A few drops per cocktail is how bitters are intended to be used, so tasting them directly out of the bottle requires an appreciation for subtlety and a little imagination reserved for the end result.
Enjoying bitters at home is easy; take your favorite drink and throw in a couple dashes of bitters.
Notice the difference? Wondering which bitters to put in? Think about your favorite drink. If it’s a gin and tonic and you know that you add a lemon or lime, try some citrus-based bitters. More of a whiskey fan? Try things that pair with whiskey, such as bitters with cherries or ginger.
There are infinite possibilities when you’re interested in adding depth, flavor and body to your favorite cocktails.