In order to make good cocktails one must have good ingredients. Masses of drinkers and bartenders go straight for the most common of ingredients: a main spirit, something sweet, some type of citrus, and a pretty garnish. To be clear, those few ingredients can combine to make very good cocktails (i.e. margarita, sidecar, gimlet… and so on and so forth). However, there is another history rich ingredient grossly under used by the populous that is key to elevating cocktails from good to excellent. It is bitters, the little bottle either hidden away or simply nonexistent in many bars, that are the salt and pepper of the cocktail world. Try eating a French fry with no salt and you will know exactly how I feel about a classic Manhattan made without Angostura bitters.
So what are bitters? Don Draper knows; your neighborhood bartender probably does not. Bitters are alcoholic liquors flavored with bitter herbs, spices and roots. The term bitters refers to two different but similar items, potable – meaning safe to drink – and non-potable bitters.Potable bitters, such as Chartreuse, Campari, and Jägermeister, are to be used much more liberally and are capable of being drank neat or on the rocks. Non-potable bitters, such as Angostura or Peychaud’s, would not be desirable as stand-alone sprits drank in large quantities or on their own. They are to play a supporting role to other flavors and be applied in units of dashes and drops.
Non-potable bitters are a part of American history, and an important bit of history in regards to the creation of cocktails. (We will focus on non-potable bitters from here on, more to come on potable bitters in another post.) The early 1800’s are when bitters started to become a staple in the Americas. They were first conceived and sold as herbal tonics and cure-alls made by local apothecaries. The usefulness of these tremendously complex concoctions quickly became evident to drinkers who wanted to enhance or cover up their cheap, ill-made booze. In fact they brought about the term “cocktail” which was originally defined as, “spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” Every serious bar of that Golden Age of Cocktails had a slew of house made bitters within hands reach. Bitters were king but unfortunately the Golden Age of Cocktails would come to a screeching halt.
Prohibition in the 1920’s and 30’s nearly snuffed out bitters altogether with the exception of two major companies, Angostura and Peychaud’s. They survived by falling once again on their origins as medicinal remedies. The good news is that today non-potable and potable bitters alike are making a major resurgence. The reason, I believe, is because bitters can be made in just about any flavor, and taste a hell of a lot better than flavored vodka. Modern bartenders have the ability to get their hands on all kinds of herbs, spices, bittering agents, and fresh fruits. Say I want to make a chocolate stout ice cream float as a cocktail, but I also want to impart a little of that quintessential root beer flavor. I might make chocolate-sarsaparilla bitters instead of using root beer to keep from watering down the cocktail. In terms of developing drinks bitters can be the key secret ingredient; if something seems to be missing in a cocktail, the something is usually a few dashes of bitters.
There are two basic ways to make bitters. One method is to combine all ingredients into one container, I like to use mason jars. The jar must be shaken for four weeks twice a day in order to both macerate and infuse the overproofed base liquor with all the complex nuances of the components. The other method is to create many different tinctures then combine them until the desired bitters comes into form. A tincture is any one essence captured in an alcohol solution. For example, I might make a sarsaparilla tincture and add it to other different tinctures to create a bitter. The latter method is a little more costly and requires space to keep all the jars, but it does allow for more control. One is less likely to ruin an entire batch of bitters because of a tad too much this or that.
Now for a recipe…
+ Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum 6 oz.
+ Frontier Jamaican Sarsaparilla Root ¼ Cup
+ Nielsen-Massey Pure Chocolate Extract 2 oz.
+ 1/8 Cup chopped Cassia Bark
+ 1/8 Cup Calamus Root
+ Zest from 12 Kumquats
Combine all ingredients in a mason jar then shake twice a day for four weeks. Use a fine strainer to remove all debris. Pour into a dropper bottle or use an old Angostura or Peychaud’s bottle.You will wind up with something that looks a lot like this:
I can be spotted around Richmond with a small bottle in hand adding my own bitters to the occasional drink. I look forward to hearing about your bitter making adventures and recipes. Until then have a Pink Gin and do not skimp on the bitters!