Take a spirit — say, a couple of ounces of whiskey. Add some sugar. Stir with ice.
Not a very exciting drink, right? So add a couple of dashes of bitters, and stir again. Now you’ve got something.
What you’ve got is a cocktail in the most traditional sense of the term. Though these days we tend to call any mixed alcoholic beverage a cocktail, the word originally referred to drinks made with a spirit or wine, sugar, and bitters.
Over time, cocktails evolved into more elaborate concoctions. If a customer in the late 1800s wanted something simpler, he’d order one of those “old-fashioned” cocktails — hence the name of a standard drink every bartender ought to know.
The Old Fashioned happens to be the perfect drink for understanding the role of bitters in mixology. The exotic assortment of little medicine bottles found in high-end bars and shops can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated.
“I don’t like bitters,” I’ve heard a number of customers say over the years. That’s a bit like saying, “I don’t like spices.” In fact, that’s pretty much what bitters are: An intense solution of spices, herbs, flavors, and bittering agents, like gentian or orris root.
A small dash of bitters adds depth and complexity to a drink, enlivening an otherwise flat combination. They’re used to accent a cocktail, not to dominate it. (Well, with some exceptions. We’ll get to those later.)
So back to that Old Fashioned. This drink will come out differently depending on where you order it. Sometimes it will have fruit muddled into it. Sometimes it will be topped with soda. On one memorable occasion, I watched a bartender add grenadine, soda, and a squeeze of lemon to mine, with nary a dash of bitters in sight (not recommended). Personally, I like the minimalist approach:
2 oz. spirit
1/4 oz. rich simple syrup or a sugar cube
2 dashes bitters
Unmuddled fruit for garnish
The spirit is typically bourbon or rye, the bitters typically Angostura (the most widely available bitters, the ones with the yellow cap and the oversized label). If you’re using a sugar cube, you’ll need to muddle it with the bitters and dissolve the sugar in the spirit before adding ice. A “dash” is a subjective thing; it’s more than a drop, though, so don’t just tilt the bottle into the mixing glass. Give it a quick downward motion to force out some of the liquid. For the fruit, a cherry or orange zest works great.
The fun thing about this drink is that you can try all sorts of different combinations of spirit and bitters to see how they work together. Try tequila with Angostura and Peychaud’s, for example. With the number of spirits and bitters commercially available today, the possibilities are endless.
If you’re stocking your home bar with bitters for the first time, you’ll probably want to get at least one bottle of aromatic bitters like Angostura and one bottle of orange bitters, the latter of which is called for in many gin drinks. Peychaud’s is great for Scotch and essential in classic New Orleans cocktails like the Sazerac.
These three will cover most of the recipes one comes across, but we’re fortunate to have a huge variety of new bitters appearing on the market. Rhubarb, lavender, and even Jamaican Jerk are just a few of the innovative bitters available to the modern mixologist. A dash or two of these can be just what’s needed to tie a drink together.
As an example, this next drink, the Mexican Train, is one bartender Dave Shenaut and I came up with while mixing cocktails with Ilegal Mezcal. It’s a play on the Tipperary, a classic cocktail made with Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth, and herbal Chartreuse liqueur. In our version a couple of dashes of spicy mole bitters complete the recipe by pairing the Chartreuse with chocolate. We used housemade bitters, but the commercially available Xocolatl bitters from Bittermens work well, too:
The Mexican Train
2 oz. mezcal
3/4 oz. sweet vermouth
1/4 oz. green Chartreuse
2 dashes mole bitters
Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. If using a particularly strong mezcal, consider adding a little more vermouth.
Bartenders being bartenders, it was inevitable that they’d take bitters beyond their use as a mere accent in cocktails. Some have been known to go so far as downing straight shots of Angostura, which is actually better than it sounds. The Peypal from Portland bartender Neil Kopplin isn’t quite that extreme, but it shows how bitters can be used to good effect in larger quantities:
1 oz. Peychaud’s bitters
1 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. blanc or dry vermouth
1 tsp. rich simple syrup
1 tsp. absinthe
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon zest. I especially like this with Dolin Blanc, a sweet white vermouth.
Thanks to the recent resurgence of craft cocktails, consumers now have an incredible array of bitters to choose from. Add a few bottles to your home bar and and you’ll have an inexpensive, long-lasting ingredient that will take your drinks to the next level.
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