The renaissance of an almost-forgotten ingredient is now officially trendy
A Manhattan, a Bourbon Old Fashioned, the Garden Tonic, the Ninth Ward, or a Sazerac—many different cocktails can be made using bitters.
The different concoctions fit an abundance of profiles, anything from a citrus to a carbonated tonic flavor. They are only linked by the bitter-to-bittersweet taste contributed by the bitters themselves.
TerraMae Appalachian Bistro’s head bartender Justin Stamper describes making bitters as cooking. “It’s a linear progression,” he said. “I will often start with a recipe, but quickly abandon it for smelling and tasting.”
Though bitters have a rich history, many considered them to be all-but-dead before a recent reemergence. What started out as a medicinal beverage created by the ancient Greeks wasn’t considered a cocktail ingredient until the British passed along the practice of adding bitters to canary wine sometime in the 19th century.
Bitters then took a major hit with the 1906 U.S. Food and Drugs Act, which effectively outlawed many bitters due to “lack of proof of health benefits”. They were nearly finished off by Prohibition a few years later. Yet since then bitters have experienced a comeback, fueled by connoisseurs of pre-Prohibition cocktail culture.
Bitters come in many different flavors, and are usually added in dashes to create cocktails. They usually contain anywhere from 35- to 45-percent alcohol, and are made by infusing botanicals with a high-proof alcohol, usually 100-proof or higher, then combining that with numerous aromatic and flavor agents in order to get the exact profile desired.
Angostura is the most common bottle of bitters you’ll find behind a bar. Others include Peychaud’s bitters, the quintessential ingredient in the famous Sazerac cocktail, Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, found in the cocktails like the Martinez, and Bittercube Bitters, designed for tropical cocktails.
Based on the description given by Justin and other area bartenders, bitters can be quite hard to create. The best way to find that perfect profile requires lots of using the senses and adding a little of this and a little of that to concoct exactly what you’re looking for.
Justin believes that’s why bitters are being revived—the individuality of each batch and therefore, each cocktail. “The trend is to find the obscure, find the craft, find the creative and celebrate it,” he said. “There is so much individuality in each bottle, in each profile and each maker, that you have this endless cabaret to alter the same cocktail.”