When most people see the word “bitters” in a cocktail recipe, their immediate reaction is to think that the cocktail will have a tart or sour taste. While this can occur, bitters for the most part are designed to meld and balance the different, conflicting ingredients within a cocktail.
Bitters have long been a part of original cocktails (think Old-Fashioned), but their use has been growing over the years. Nowadays, bars are experimenting with cocktails by adding larger quantities of bitters or by making bitters the cocktail base. Yet, many bar patrons don’t exactly understand what bitters are and why they’re used.
What Are Bitters?
To start, let’s look at what’s in bitters. Adam Hodak, Beverage Director for Bonanno Concepts, which operates the cocktail speakeasy Green Russell, says that bitters are made up of three main ingredients: bittering agents, aromatics and flavors. Most of the raw ingredients in bitters wouldn’t taste good by themselves, i.e. quinine, wormwood, juniper berries, citrus peels or Cassia, a variation of cinnamon. When combined, however, they work together to create interesting flavors and balancing agents.
Not to be left out: Liquor is a big player in bitters and is used as a preservative. Jesus Pacheco, Director of Food and Beverage at Randolph’s in the Warwick Hotel, explains that bitters without liquor would only have a shelf life of about two or three days. The liquor base extends the life and also adds more flavor.
The main use of bitters is as an additive to cocktails – just a few dashes. Bitters, however, aren’t always just mixed into cocktails. Certain bitters are designed to be drunk by themselves. An aperitif bitter like Campari can be served before a meal to stimulate your appetite while a digestif like Fernet can aid with digestion. Other “original” uses for bitters were medicinal. For example, Angostura Bitters were originally sold to help upset stomachs and to cure sea sickness.
Why Add Bitters to a Cocktail?
Bitters are mainly designed to help blend cocktail ingredients. Kevin Burke, bartender at Colt & Gray, demonstrated what happens when you leave out the bitters of well-known cocktails like an Old-Fashioned (whiskey, sugar, bitters and water/soda) or a Manhattan (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and angostura bitters). Basically, “it tastes like something is wrong.”
For example, the Old-Fashioned without bitters tastes like Bourbon and water – only slightly sweeter because of the sugar. The Manhattan comes across like a bad drink you’d get at a college party; it actually smells better than it tastes. The bitters in a Manhattan help “fold two ingredients together to create a seamless quality.” Bitters can also be used to add “an aromatic lift” to a drink, adding a bit of complexity that brings the cocktail flavors together.
“My favorite example of this style of drink is the ‘Queens Park Swizzle’,” says Burke. “The mixture of rum, lime, and mint is a dead-ringer for a Mojito, but the preparation and aromatic garnishes make it a far superior drink.”
Burke also mentioned that bitters can be the base of cocktails, i.e. Campari and Soda and Angostura Collins. Fernet, a bitter aromatic spirit, is also used as a cocktail base. According to Burke, “While all Fernets are bitters, not all bitters are Fernet.” This is a special type of bitter that often “doesn’t play well with others” so many bartenders avoid using it in drinks. You may, however, still find cocktails like the Hanky Panky, a variation on a martini with the addition of Fernet, or Fernet Branca Cocktail on menus.
Next: How are bitters made, and what bars make their own?
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