Craft cocktails have made incredible leaps and bounds over the past dozen or so years. Nothing is more in evidence than the augmentations, such as bitters, shrubs, syrups, tonics, cola, and even flowers — each variety and flavor designed specifically for the craft cocktail bar.
Visit your neighborhood mixology bar; they are popping up all over like microbrew bars did about ten years ago. You can tell a mixology bar by a couple of things. Look over at the bar. Should you see little medicine droppers on tiny bottles lined up in a row, you’re probably in the right place. Look further, do you see liquors on the shelf that you don’t recognize? Getting warmer, you are. What about that over there? It looks like they refrigerate their Vermouth (if they don’t, throw it out!). And the ice, wow, such large cubes and crystal clear.
(OK, please don’t get hung up on clear ice, not everyone gets ice and are ice-nerds, but I digress.)
But back to those little bottles. What are they? What do they do?
Well, you’re in luck. I happened to have written an entire book on bitters. So I think my explanation of what bitters are, and what they are not, will make more sense to you. I hope so, anyhow.
First of all, all bitters are not Angostura. With that said, all bitters are not sweet. Far from. What bitters are- in as few words as possible is depth and balance within a craft cocktail. Made from herbs and spices-these bitter liquids, when dispensed drop, by precious drop give a cocktail or mocktail new clarity. Not clarity in color, but concentration in flavor. Instead of a drink being one dimensional, the addition of freshly squeezed (always) juices and the finish with a couple drops of bitters, the ones that make most sense, will make that cocktail sing. And what song will that be?
Not one that is more than a few sips. Because the addition of bitters to a craft cocktail is the finish to an already well made concoction.
Bitters come in a broad array of flavors. There are dozens of Mexican Mole’ Bitters, aromatic, celery, Creole-style Peychaud’s comes to mind here, as does Angostura; both were invented to heal the gut in times of poor refrigeration and sea-sickness. I’ve fallen for some new ones from Crude down in North Carolina that are darned delicious — Wilks and Wilson Bitters have made it into my kit. I’m always interested in the Bittered Sling from friendly Vancouver, BC. The Moroccan Bitters, Thai Bitters, Chesapeake Bay Bitters (Bitter End) are my all-time favorites. Bitters made without alcohol — Fee Brothers comes to mind immediately. Their mint is a julep in a pinch. Tinctures that tantalize the taste buds, such as the brilliant 1821.
There are hundreds of bitters available on the market all over the world and each are as delicious as the next. I suggest tasting them all, but bring your wallet because a little 1-2 oz. bottle can cost a pretty penny! If you are in New Orleans during the yearly Tales of the Cocktail festival in July, you can take a gander at a veritable cornucopia of bitters.
It really is the Golden Age of cocktail ingredients and Mixology.
Here are a few cocktails that I created that use bitters as the finishing touch.
Phoenician Carrot Frappe
- 3 oz. Arak (kind of like ouzo, but much drier)
- 2 oz. Freshly crushed carrot juice
- Crushed Ice
- Fresh mint (drop cut end in boiling water for 10-15 seconds, then store in ice water, cut end down)
- Aromatic Bitters
To a Burgundy wine glass: Add the crushed ice To a Boston Shaker. Add the Arak and the carrot juice. Add bar-ice to fill ¾ and cap, shake hard for 15.5 seconds. Double strain over the ice in the Burgundy glass. Dot with Aromatic Bitters. Garnish with the fresh mint, add more ice to the glass, if necessary.
Four Pairs of Shoes and a Dark Suit
- 3 oz. Eden Heirloom Ice Cider from Vermont
- 2 oz. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (left to go flat overnight)
- 4 oz. Sparkling cider (your choice)
Into a pre-chilled Burgundy glass: Add the “flat” Guinness. Float the sparkling cider on top. Finish with another float of the Heirloom Ice Cider. Serve and prepare another… They’re so good!
Your Talking Barber
- 2 oz. Barr Hill Gin from Vermont (distilled from Raw Honey and Grain)
- 1 oz. White balsamic vinegar
- 1 Tbsp Lemon marmalade
- 1 oz. Dry Vermouth, such as Dolin
- 1 oz. Freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3-5 drops Celery bitters
Prepare a coupe glass with ice and water. When frosty, pour out the ice and water and add 5 drops of the celery bitters, roll the bitters around to make the glass wet inside. Into a Boston Shaker, filled ¾ with ice. Add the lemon marmalade, the balsamic, the vermouth, the Barr Hill Gin and the lemon juice. Cap and shake HARD for 15 seconds. Double strain into your coupe glass with the celery bitters already inside the chilled and seasoned glass.