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A Little Dash’ll Do Ya: Bitters Make Drinks Better

By Ruth Tobias, CSX Contributor

Photo credit Heather Green Photography.

Photo credit Heather Green Photography.

Spirits may be a cocktail’s main ingredient—but bitters are its essence. Widely marketed as elixirs in the eighteenth century, these alcoholic infusions of roots, herbs, bark, fruit, flowers, and other botanicals weren’t created with enjoyment in mind; like all medicines, then, they tended to go down easier with a spoonful of sugar. Mixing them for the sake of drinkability eventually became common practice, though, and by the early 1800s—right around the time that the cocktail was invented—bitters began appearing on back bars.

No wonder, then, that today’s history-minded craft bartenders have returned bitters to their rightful place as mixology’s “building blocks,” as Raymond Snead, owner and creator of Boulder, Colorado’s Cocktail Punk puts it. In particular, the aromatic and orange bitters of old function as what co-founder Jomaree Pinkard of Hella Bitters in Brooklyn calls “the salt and pepper of the bar.” Typically redolent of baking spices, aromatic bitters are beloved for their versatility, Pinkard explains, but they’re critical in whiskey classics like the Manhattan and the Old-Fashioned (as well as excellent in coffee), while the orange variety—naturally distinguished by notes of dried orange peel—shines bright in cocktails made with gin or vodka.

BasementBitters2

Basement Bitters are made in New York by Tuthilltown Spirits.

Of course, those same bartenders are no less forward-looking for being history-minded, which is why the small-batch producers driving the current bitters boom offer an ever-growing array of specialty flavors to facilitate experimentation—think coffee and currant, celery and curry. Snead, for one, has made cult hits of his anise liqueur-esque, tiki-friendly Pastiche and the limited-edition Palisade Peach, ideal for Southern-inspired bourbon drinks. And Tuthilltown Spirits’ Brendan O’Rourke and Mike Chichetti, founders of Basement Bitters in Gardiner, New York, favor seasonality. To supplement their aromatic flagship, Frost—built for fall cocktails with hints of sarsaparilla root and maple syrup—they’re working on what O’Rourke calls “summer and winter expressions”: the grapefruit-and-ginger-tinged Solstice should bring zing to porch-pounding refreshments, while Harvest’s blend of oats, vanilla, and cherries conveys fireside comfort.

As these examples show, working with bitters is really just a matter of “common sense,” says Snead—approach them as you would “choose spices for cooking.” Got chile bitters? Get Tequila or mezcal too. Lemon or lime? Make Margaritas or Bloody Marys. (For that matter, Pinkard recommends using them in cooking, for instance by sprinkling bitters with a smoky character into your barbecue marinade.) Ultimately, practice makes perfect: Snead advises reproducing the same drink with various bitters to appreciate the “obvious and astonishing” differences. Then again, you could always just go back to the basics, eighteenth-century style; as O’Rourke observes, “We have customers who love to drink our bitters with nothing but club soda.”

Ruth Tobias is a longtime food-and-beverage writer based in Denver, Colorado. To view more of her work, visit her at ruthtobias.com or on Twitter @Denveater.

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