What are Bitters? The Essence of Cocktail Flavor

 In Cocktail Culture

If you've had a cocktail at a bar there's a solid chance that you've experienced bitters on your tongue.  Used for hundreds of years, they have been a bartenders best friend and the distinct ingredient which changes the very complexion of your beverage.  So what are bitters you ask? and why are they used so frequently in cocktails all over the world?

Prepare for a lesson in bitters: the history, the science, the taste, and the application in cocktails.  After this, you will be jumping out of your seat and searching for the easiest way to get your hands on some.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BITTERS

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of bitters, some suspect that the ancient Egyptians used herbs to infuse wine for their medicinal properties. The use of herbal bitters and tonics evolved throughout the Middle Ages as pharmacognosy (the study of medicinal drugs procured from plants and other natural resources) began to grow.

The progression of technology and readily available distilled alcohol allowed for higher level concentrations of the medicinal properties of the herbal/natural additives.  It was found that the bitterness of these concoctions helped stimulate the body to produce stomach acids which aided digestion.  With the added benefits of the herbs and spices, bitters became known as a “cure-all” and was sold as an elixir for general health.

During the 19th century, Canary wine , which originated in Spain (Canary Islands) was commonly found to have herbal and digestive bitters added to it.  This was brought to the Americas and grew in popularity amongst the original American colonies.  Some suggest that bitters were added to liquor to help them ‘go down’ a little easier, while others swear by the improved digestion and other benefits.  Many European and South American countries still consume digestive bitters after a meal either neat (no ice) or on the rocks (with ice).

Bitters are predominantly made of spirits, sugar, water, and herbal extracts.  They are made from mixing together, aromatic herbs, bark, roots and/or fruit for flavor and medicinal properties. Some of the most commonly found ingredients in bitters include cascarilla, a tree bark known for its medicinal properties, cassia chips (similar to cinnamon) and gentian, a very bitter root.

Two primary components in bitter production are water and alcohol, which is why the smell of bitters is quite pungent. The alcohol helps extract the flavors from the botanicals.

THE SCIENCE OF BITTERS

It's unlikely you are considering the health benefits of bitters when you are sipping a cocktail, but for the sake of knowledge, lets dive in to the fast facts about the science of bitters.

  • Studies have shown that the use of bitters in our diets help to curb appetite and increase your digestive capabilities
  • Bitter enhance the liver’s ability to flush toxin from our bodies—a fitting combination with consumption of alcohol since the original uses of bitters were purely for health purposes
  • Reduces inflammation the body

Okay so maybe the benefits are negated a bit by drinking alcohol with it, but who says you shouldn't go for a workout if you are just going to eat a massive burger right after? still helps a bit right?

And if you really wanted to add bitters to your diet for science. And for health.  Drink it daily in your soda water as a sugar-free flavor addition.  These days, many DIY'ers have been making their own bitters using kits you can buy online.

WHAT DO BITTERS TASTE LIKE?

 

Well.. It tastes kinda bitter.  No way right? People tend to shy away from any foods or beverages that contain too much of this taste.  Many will refuse to even try it at all. In the extreme, it can be hard to palate.  But toned down you will notice it in many common foods or drinks you may have not considered.  Coffee.  A cup of Joe – the morning drug of choice that gets people moving.  And to connoisseurs the stronger and more bitter the better.  Beer.  Arugula, citrus fruits, radishes, and ginger – the list goes on.

When you consider using bitter as an added ingredient is when things get a bit strange.  I doubt most people would sprinkle some bitter on to their savory dishes and call it a meal.  However, if used properly, bitter can be the long lost flavor that elevates the taste buds to a whole new level.  And this is the level where greatness reigns and cocktails strut their stuff.

Within the world of bitters we are presented with a variety of different bitter profiles.  The difference between the bitter of a grapefruit and the bitter of certain barks for example.  For the mixologist, this is important in determining which types of bitters to use in certain kinds of drinks.  Bitter is not a one size fits all kind of deal and the expert will match it to the flavors they work best with to enhance the profile of the cocktail.

Pure Bitter

The staple bitter profile that is the unmixed and pure flavor of bitter.  An anchor formula interacting well with sweet flavors to dull its intensity and transform it to a lingering, satisfying and warming taste.  Within the pure bitter profile are a range from mild to strong.  An example of mild being the grapefruit white rind and an example of strong being gentian or Peruvian bark.

Nutty Bitter

Clearly coming from the nut family is the nutty bitter flavor.  Think of the taste you get when eating a raw walnut or hazelnut.  A very earthy flavor of bitter which goes best with rich, starchy and buttery flavors.

Dirty Bitter

This kind of bitter is best described as ashy or a smoky bitter.  A strong bitter hits your tongue and is followed by a more earthy feel.  Used in meats and combined with umami or sour flavors is it's best application.

Soapy Bitter

Not the most attractive of bitters and certainly not one you would use alone.  However some breed of bitter has a soapy nature and in small doses can combine well with sweet and pungent flavor.

Astringent Bitter

This bitter is characterized by the feeling in your mouth when you consume something astringent such as green tea or certain roots.  The dry, almost gritty feeling is common in astringent bitters.  This is good to use to balance out flavors that are overly rich and buttery.

THE APPLICATION IN COCKTAILS

Now that you have a beginners understanding of bitters, where they come from and how they can enhance flavor, we can now take a look at the application of bitters in cocktails. Finally, the fun part.

Cocktail bitters are the new rage with many new companies experimenting with various ingredients and claiming they have invented the holy grail of bitters.  Each using their choice of barks, herbs, and fruits.  Each combining the bitter, bittersweet, and sour approaches to each bottle.  Most highlight what kind of alcohol, mixers, juices to combine it with.  Many bitters you may have heard of (Angostura Bitters?), others you may have not.  But if one thing is for sure, bartenders are playing with different brands and inventing very tasty drinks.

The premise is simple.  Use bitters to balance certain flavor profiles and alcohols to create complex flavors which the consumer enjoys.

Think of the classic.  The Old Fashioned.  A simple cocktail combining the smoky, barrel aged flavor of bourbon with sugar, aromatic bitters and orange zest.  Bourbon has a natural sweetness and the muddled sugar alone would be overpoweringly sweet to the palate.  A few dashes of aromatic bitters and the fragrant oils of the orange zest soften the intense sweetness of the drink while balancing the smoky flavor of the bourbon with a complex bitter aftertaste.

Ever notice that simple Gin & Tonic made at home with just gin and regular tonic soda doesn't seem to stack up against the bar? And how each bar or restaurant seems to have a unique twist on common drinks like the Moscow Mule, or the Mojito.  Bartenders apply their own take on the drink by adding bitters and tweaking the recipes to create something unique and flavorful.  And with their recipes come secrets of the trade that they probably don't want to share with you.

However, we live in the time of the internet.  Where bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts are more than willing to share their creations and detail all of the ingredients and bitters used along the process.  So go ahead, poke around the world of mixology through Instagram #drinkstagram #mixology #cocktails for inspiration.

Now then.. Have you been convinced that you should start making cocktails with bitters?

Try out a few of the classics like Angostura Bitters, or pick up a sample pack from a company like Scrappy's or Bittermens.

Or, for the more portable version, we have a variety bitters within our Cocktail Kits such as aromatic bitters, grapefruit, lavender and more.

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