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BITTERNESS IS A CONFOUNDING FLAVOR. It can be a sign of poison -- a warning shot fired at our brain to proceed with caution. Yet how many tastes are elevated by the slightest edge of tannic, tongue-tingling bitterness? Chocolate, coffee, burnt caramel, artichokes, grapefruit, brussels sprouts, collard greens, chicories and hoppy beers -- the list goes on and on.
Then there are cocktail bitters, tiny bottles of flavorful tinctures, flavored with mysterious roots, barks, peels, seeds, spices and herbs. In pre-Prohibition America, bitters flourished. In fact, as any cocktail geek could tell you, the first written definition of the word, which appeared on May 13, 1806 in The Balance, and Columbian Repository described cocktails as "a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters."
So says Brad Thomas Parsons in "Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas" (Ten Speed, 2011, $25). Mr. Parsons' book, which won both the International Association of Culinary Professionals book award in the Wine, Beer & Spirits category, and the James Beard award for best book in the beverage category, chronicles the recent bitters resurgence as serious cocktail bars have turned their attention to house-made infusions and small bitters companies have sprung up in numerous cities.
Now, bars might have anywhere from six to a few dozen options: ingredient-focused bitters from Scrappy's in Seattle, in flavors such as cardamom, lavender and celery; or the poetically named concoctions from Bittermens in Brooklyn including hopped grapefruit, xocolatl mole, and its citrus and chamomile "Boston Bittahs"; or the culinary-inspired Bitter End Bitters from Santa Fe, N.M., which come in flavors such as Jamaican jerk, Moroccan, Mexican and Memphis barbecue.
The proliferation of flavors and styles has in turn inspired bartenders, who are quick to revise classic drinks and invent new ones making use of the vast array of flavors.
At Spoon in East Liberty, the bar staff stocks a wide variety of bitters from both old-school brands such as Angostura, and trendy new startups such as Bittermens. Bar manager Heather Perkins' current favorite is Bittermens Burlesque Bitters, a blend of hibiscus, acai berry and long pepper -- sweet, sour and a little spicy. She uses a dash in the O'Shaku, a floral yet refreshing blend of yellow chartreuse, St. Germain elder?ower liqueur, and dry sake.
When she's working on a new cocktail, she usually makes the drink, tastes it, then adds bitters, taking note of how the flavors change. A good way to taste bitters is to treat them a little like perfume, sprinkling a drop or two on the palm of your hand, rubbing your palms together, then cupping your hands in front of your nose as you take in the aroma. But really, the best way to try a new bitters is in a cocktail, since it's hard to predict how bitters and other alcohols interact.
Rob Hirst, bar manager at Soba in Shadyside, took a bitters class at last year's Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Attendees tasted 14 kinds of bitters, and then sampled cocktails with and without bitters. "It opened my eyes to exactly what they do for the cocktail," he said. "They extend flavors, keeping them on your tongue and adding new depth." He'd always kept bitters behind the bar, but after this class, he started experimenting with more varieties and tried his hand at making them, too.
I had the chance to make my own at a bitters workshop led by Benjamin Harrison, a founder of Hella Bitters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Full disclosure: Mr. Harrison is one of my husband's closest friends and is largely responsible for introducing me to the wide, wonderful world of modern bitters.)
Mr. Harrison had done most of the work for us, assembling about 15 or so jars of high-proof alcohol infused with spices, herbs and botanicals -- star anise, cinnamon, celery seed, clove, ginger, orange peel, caraway, cardamom and more -- and a number of bitter components such as gentian root, wormwood and angelica root. We made our way around the bar, holding our bottles, layering our flavors. Then we tasted our bitters in simple whiskey and gin cocktails. I'd played it safe, going for an Indian-inspired mix of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, star anise and fennel seed, with wormwood for bitterness. It smelled good, and it tasted fine, particularly paired with whiskey, but mostly, it made me appreciate the skillful blending of professional bitters, which almost magically enhance cocktails.
Those interested in trying their hand at bitters making should pick up a copy of Mr. Parsons' book, but a visit to a well-stocked cocktail bar is a much faster way to sample an array of flavorful bitters the way they were meant to be consumed, as part of a delicious, well-balanced cocktail.
Named for its close relationship to the original cocktail definition (spirits, bitters, sugar and water), the Old-Fashioned takes well to all kinds of bitters, and is a nice way of testing out unfamiliar flavors. While some recipes call for abundant fruit garnishes, this version is cleaner and better shows off the bitters.
-- China Millman
- 2 ounces rye or bourbon
- 1/4 ounce simple syrup
- 3 dashes Angostura or other aromatic bitters
- Thick piece of lemon or orange zest
Combine the rye or bourbon, simple syrup and bitters in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled double old-fashioned glass filled with large pieces of cracked ice or a large ice cube. Garnish with the lemon or orange zest.
Makes 1 drink.
-- Adapted from "Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All with Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas" by Bard Thomas Parsons (Ten Speed, 2011, $25)
China Millman: email@example.com.