A Word on Bitters

This week on our Instagram page, we showcased three cocktails:

Down the Rabbit Hole – our signature cocktail featuring plum, tea, and dark chocolate.

Left Hand – an intriguing spin off both the Manhattan and Negroni, created by Sam Ross (Attaboy NYC)

And the Coffee Old Fashioned – our signature cocktail featuring coffee and dark chocolate bitters.

What brings these three cocktails together isn’t their style (although all are spirit-forward) or their base spirit (although two out of three use Bourbon, and the Coffee Old Fashioned would be delicious with Bourbon), but their use of chocolate bitters.

 

Bitters are a complex topic, rivalling their complexity in flavor and there’s plenty of experts out there on the topic that can give you a much more detailed history on the subject than we can (see the James Beard Award winning Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure All by Brad Thomas Parsons). However, bitters are absolutely critical to building a home bar and a cocktail mindset. That’s why this topic was so important for us to write to the blog.

The 30,000 ft flyby on the history of bitters is that they date back centuries and were used, as you may have guessed, for medicinal purposes. Think of it as a mystical potion of sorts that was thought to cure what ails you. This complex infusion of various barks, roots, peels, spices, herbs and other botanicals in alcohol or glycerine is a formula that is still around today. Bitters on their own are intense, hence why they are used in small quantities (dashes or drops) in cocktails, although I have had a tiki cocktail in the past that featured a full ounce of Angostura and though it was delicious, bitters typically aren’t featured in quantities above a dash or a drop.

Now that the question of what bitters are is taken care of, the next question becomes how did they survive centuries and have exploded in popularity today? If you think about it, the original intention of the bitter, to cure what ails you, has been long displaced by modern medicine. So, there must be a reason you can still get a bottle of bitters today that would resemble what existed in prior centuries -  the answer is of course cocktails and the critical role bitters play in the art of mixology.

I can’t pinpoint exactly where I picked up this philosophy, but I view the use of bitters in a cocktail much like how I used salt or spices in my cooking days which is to brighten up the flavors of a dish. Pound for pound bitters are a lot like salt or spices, a little bit can dramatically change the complexity and flavor profile of a dish. There have been countless times where I’ve developed a cocktail mix that is 90% of the way but lacks that little something extra. Have you ever tasted something that just seems flat? It’s sort of like that.

In situations like these, I find myself reaching for my bitters collection and start mapping the flavor profile of the bitter to see if there’s a complementary match to the cocktail that we can use to brighten it up. I’ve created a sort of diary on bitters, I’ll taste them on their own in order to fully grasp the flavor profile and document it for future use. For me, the approach of seasoning cocktails with bitters has paid dividends for when a cocktail falls a little short. Take for instance the cocktail featured this week – Down the Rabbit Hole.

This cocktail was inspired by a cocktail I had at the Rabbit Hole Distillery in Louisville that featured Sakura & Cherry Blossom teas and plum wine. While the Down the Rabbit Hole cocktail is entirely different from the one I enjoyed at Rabbit Hole, we at Angel’s Share Cocktail Co wanted to experiment with the combination of a dry tea base and a sweet plum juice in a cocktail. The issue was, it was falling flat and missing that complexity that we wanted, that added layer of flavor that makes you take pause. Knowing that plums and chocolate were a solid flavor match, a dash of chocolate bitters really rounded out the cocktail and brought forward that complexity that makes this cocktail one of our most popular varieties from our 2020 Fall Release.

Writing about how magical a dash or two of a carefully selected bitter can be in transforming a cocktail doesn’t really do it justice. The only way to experience this, is to try it in your next flat cocktail. If you’re getting into mixology, starting a low key bitters collection is a rewarding experience. Don’t let the price tag of a bottle vs the volume fool you, these bottles will last you a long time and you’ll be surprised at the value they can bring to a cocktail in need of some depth.

The first bottle of bitters I ever bought, perhaps like most, is a bottle of Angostura. I was big into Old Fashioneds and Manhattans at the time so reached for the iconic, over-sized label wrapped classic bitters often. The second bottle bought was a bottle of Angostura Orange Bitters, although now I’d chose a bottle of Regan’s Orange Bitters No 6. My third bottle was the classic Peychaud’s Bitters which are irreplaceable in a Sazerac. These three bottles are what I would consider my “core” bitters collection, the franchise stars to build a strong collection around – I encourage any cocktail enthusiast to go out and purchase some, you won’t be disappointed.

After establishing the core, it was time to branch out into the endless choices of bitters available. You can pretty well find anything – grapefruit, coffee, celery, ginger, chocolate, cranberry, wood, tobacco and the list goes on and on. The variety of flavors in the market allow for the utmost creativity in cocktails, meaning there is nothing stopping you from reaching for a bottle of tobacco bitters instead of the classic Angostura in your next Manhattan. Make the change and it will transform into an entirely different drink!

In the end, bitters truly are a mixologist’s spice pantry. A tool at the barkeep’s disposal allowing them to enhance the drink or introduce a surprising flavor to a cocktail. They open up an avenue of creativity that is rewarding and far exceeds its price tag.

Those are my thoughts on bitters, now it’s time to go experiment.

 

Down the Rabbit Hole

In a mixing pitcher, combine 2 oz Bourbon and 2 oz Down the Rabbit Hole Cocktail Mix. Fill with ice and stir until cold. Strain into a coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Left Hand (recipe credit: Imbibe)

1 ½ oz Bourbon

¾ Campari

¾ Sweet Vermouth (we use Carpano Antica)

2 dashes Chocolate Bitters

Combine in a mixing pitcher over ice. Stir until chilled. Strain into a coupe and garnish with a cherry.

Coffee Old Fashioned

In a mixing pitcher combine 2 oz Amber rum with 1 barspoon of Coffee Old Fashioned Craft Cocktail Mix. Stir until chilled and strain into a double rocks glass over a large cube of ice. Garnish with an orange twist.

 

Leave a comment