The Bitter Truth behind the Art of the Cocktail
Bitters were once considered essential in early cocktail recipes, but then their popularity dwindled and they were left out of many drinks; however they are enjoying a revival, owing in part, to a renewed interest in classic cocktails. Bitters are essentially a fusion of aromatic fruits, herbs and spices infused with alcohol. Essentially they are liquid seasoning that when added to drinks create interesting taste transformations and flavour combinations.
Beginning as a medicinal elixir, bitters were originally used as a medical cure-all. How bitters came to be is a something that is unclear with theories ranging from lucky accident to ancient knowledge and alchemy. Over time bitters have moved from the medicine cupboard to the bar and if creating a home bar they are definitely an important element.
When you start thinking about buying and incorporating bitters into your cocktails at home it can be overwhelming, but they’re definitely worth experimenting with. It’s really tempting to buy a range of exotic sounding bitters and just throw them all in a glass with everything from the drinks cabinet for company and whilst this sort of experimentation may be fun, it rarely comes up with palatable results. I suggest starting with classic cocktail recipes and discover which bitters you like and then develop your own favourite drinks.
Building up a collection of bitters is very much like stocking a drinks cabinet, you don’t run out and buy every type of liqueur or spirit on the market; instead you think about what you like to drink and what you can create with them.
If you are thinking that incorporating bitters into your cocktails this festive season seems like a lot of fuss, then all I can say to you is that you need to try bitters to realise what a difference a drop makes. Warm, rich, exotic, spicy, and astringent, bitters can transform a cocktail from the ordinary into the extraordinary. The addition of a dash of bitters to a cocktail can balance a drinks flavour and breathe character and depth into it. Bitters are essential for creating vintage classics such as the Manhattan and the Champagne Cocktail. Indeed, bitters are an absolute must for the well-stocked vintage home stocked bar.
My top tip is to start with a few simple bitters and build up your collection as your repertoire of cocktails grows. Below is my tasting guide to bitters to get you started and help you create the perfect cocktail.
Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Angostura is probably best known bitters brand with its bright yellow cap and over-sized wrapper. These aromatic bitters are warming with the flavours of cardamom, nutmeg, and cinnamon and they are a key ingredient in classic cocktails like the Manhattan. The versatility of these bitters makes them a must for any home bar.
An essential ingredient in a dry Martini cocktail, the flavour of slightly bitter oranges combined with the spicy flavours of cardamom, caraway and nutmeg. A versatile bitter that is a must for the discerning cocktail maker.
Dry Martini Cocktail
2 oz (60 ml) Gin
¼ oz (10ml) dry vermouth
2 dashes of orange bitters
Combine the ingredients and stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the classic green olive.
This is one to add to your collection if you’re a fan of Bloody Marys as it’s a great compliment to the celery salt used in this classic drink. They’re also an excellent addition to a gin and tonic and as this is a firm favourite of mine, a bottle of celery bitters is always present at my home bar.
1 Lemon wedge
1 Lime wedge
4 dashes celery bitters
2 oz (60ml) vodka
3 ½ oz (100ml) Tomato juice
2 dashes Tabasco Sauce
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 pinch Celery salt
1 pinch Ground black pepper
1 pinch Smoked paprika
Pour some celery salt onto a tea plate. Rub a lemon wedge around the rim of a glass (usually a tall pint glass). Roll the outer edge of the glass in celery salt until fully coated. Fill with ice and set aside. Squeeze the lemon and lime wedges into a cocktail shaker and drop them in. Add the remaining ingredients and fill with ice. Shake gently and strain into the prepared glass. If you wish to garnish the drink then use a celery stick and a wedge of lime.
If you like brandy cocktails then Creole Bitters are a must for your drinks cabinet. Perfectly balanced creole bitters combine fruity and floral aromas with the aromatics of anise, caraway and fennel providing notes of bitterness, sweetness and seductive spiciness. I absolutely love Creole Bitters for their versatility as well as flavour they are useful in both modern and classic cocktail recipes.
Seren’s Brandy Cocktail
2 ounces (60 ml)brandy
1 ounce (30 ml) Cointreau
2 tsp sugar
3 dashes of creole bitters
Stir with ice and strain into cocktail glasses. Perfect for cold winter nights!
Walnut bitters have a rich and nutty unique flavour, they offer the perfect way to add a unique twist to mulled wine as well as to cocktails.
Experimenting with and getting to know bitters are a great pastime and undeniably one of the most enjoyable parts of building your own home bar. The festive season gives a great excuse for a bit of indulgence and so grab a bottle or two, dust off your cocktail shaker and start trying out bitters, it is certain that you’ll discover some you absolutely love.
Where to Buy
Some of the more common bitters such as Campari and Angostura Aromatic Bitters are widely and readily available at supermarkets and other stores. , whereas, bitters such as, celery or walnut require a specialist store. I found Cream Supplies to have a good supply stocking over twenty seven different types of bitters, including tempting varieties, such as rhubarb, peach and even chocolate.
You can visit their store at Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. and look in their Drink Flavours & Ingredients department, you’ll find all sorts of supplies for both the professional and home bar. I had to restrain myself as I wanted to buy everything.
Happy cocktail making!