Article By: Ben Sandrof
That dusty old bottle sitting on countless bars back shelf could be one of many potable or non-potable spirits being massively overlooked by most bartenders and imbibers. Until recently that is. With the serious cocktail resurgence in full effect we see bartenders all over the country and world, mixing old school vintage cocktails as well as more modern recipes with the help of all kinds of bitters – using them as flavor enhancers and modifiers and even as the base spirit.
Bitters can be broken into two basic categories: Bitters that can be drunk by themselves (potable), and those that are not so friendly to drink on their own (non-potable). The potables, which have a history of being drunk in European coffee shops next to an espresso or with a meal as an operative or digestive, would be things like Campari, Fernet, Averna, Aperol, and all sorts of Amaros from various producers. They tend to have intense herbal or medicinal tastes that range from fruit to citrus oils to barks and spices. Campari is very popular in drinks like the Negroni, when it is combined with gin and sweet vermouth, and the Americano, which replaces the gin with soda water. Its flavor is quite bittersweet with lots of citrus on the nose, predominantly grapefruit. Aperol is similar, but more orange in color and definitely sweeter and less bitter. It is made of many different ingredients including orange, china, rhubarb, and grapefruit and is quite popular in Europe mixed with white wine and soda water as an Aperol Spritz. I also like it as a replacement for Campari in some cocktails. Fernet is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the citrus forward bitters. It is less sweet and so seems like one of the most bitter. Dark brown in color, it is minty and herbal, almost to the point of being vegetal. Certainly an acquired taste, but great after a big meal. It was created in Italy, like most of the others, but has made quite a splash in South America, where they like to drink it mixed with cola. There are a number of producers of Fernet but the Branca family has become most popular with bartenders because of the intensity of their product, Fernet Branca. Amaros, like Averna, tend to be sweeter, almost caramel or coffee-like in flavor.
Angostura, the most popular non-potable bitters, is probably stocked on every bars in our country, and, in general, is widely overlooked by most bartenders. Developed in Venezuela and now produced in Trinidad, Angostura is the small brown bottle with the oversized white label and a bright yellow cap. Its flavors are heavy on cinnamon and winter spices (nutmeg, allspice and clove). Angostura is essential in an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan but the flavor plays well with just about every spirit.
With the growing popularity of more complex flavors in cocktails and the return of the classics, we see more and more bars stocking Peychauds (originally the bitters of New Orleans), Angostura Orange (new this year to our market) and the whole line of Fee Brothers bitters out of NYC, which have been expanding rapidly to include aromatic, lemon, orange, mint, rhubarb, cherry, and whisky barrel, as well as a few others. I have found their flavors to be subtler and a little sweeter when mixed into a cocktail. Peychaud bitters, created in the 183Os by Antoine Amedee Peychaud, has a bright red color, smells of liquorice and is called for in both the Sierra (rye whiskey, sugar, Peychauds, and absinthe) and the Seelbach cocktail (bourbon whiskey, Cointreau, Peychauds, Angostura, and sparkling wine).
Some smaller producers of bitters include Gary Regan who makes an orange bitter out of New York State called Regan’s No. 6. It has a slightly mellower flavor than the others and smells like fresh orange zest with light spice. The Bitter Truth is a line of bitters out of Germany, which is slightly more expensive due to it coming from overseas. They have produced an aromatic, lemon, orange, and celery. These tend to be quite spicy and aromatic, most interesting are their limited release Repeal Day and Jerry Thomas bitters – both different spins on aromatic bitters using different spices. Admittedly, some of these bitters can be very hard to find, if not impossible. Angostura Original is the most widely distributed, able to be found in well stocked supermarkets and specialty stores. Their orange is a little trickier to find, but it can be ordered online and found at the Boston Shaker, a store within a store, located in Grand, at 374 Somerville Avenue in Union Square in Somerville.
Just how integral are bitters when it comes to mixing cocktails? Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli of Craigie on Main in Cambridge said, “Imagine if a chef had to work without salt. Non-potable bitters like Angostura and Bittermens Bitters offer the opportunity to heighten the flavor of a drink, to elevate its tones and create greater balance. Potable bitters can be used in a number of ways as a digestif or an aperitif, but it is the complex makeup of the bitters themselves that makes them truly fun to mix with. Though I do enjoy them on their own from time to time, making stirred drinks with potable bitters is a great entryway back into cocktails after dinner.”
Andrew Deitz of MS Walker commented, “Working with restaurants, I can’t help but notice that bitters, both potable and non-potable, have come back in a big way. Ten years ago, some restaurants might have had a dusty bottle of Angostura sitting back behind the bar, somewhere along with a bottle of Campari, but that was really it. When ordering even a simple Manhattan, you would rarely get bitters despite the fact that the recipe calls for it. The bars with a truly evolved cocktail program such as Drink, Green Street, Craigie on Main, No. 9 Park, and Eastern Standard all have upwards of ten types of bitters behind their bars. The classic cocktail movement can be credited largely for this phenomenon.”