Talk about reversals of fortune. For centuries, bitters were used as medicinal tinctures. Suddenly they got a promotion when the first-known printed definition of a proper cocktail (1806) listed them (along with spirits, sugar and water) among the obligatory components. Through the nineteenth century, bitters remained hand-in-glove with America’s gift to liquid cuisine. But after Prohibition they faltered, stumbling into the age of speed mixing (note: bitters have no role in the movie Cocktail). The joke among bartenders became “your bottle of bitters will last longer than your marriage.” Then arrived the great classic cocktail revival of the last decade and a half, and lo and behold, the diligent students who drove the movement discovered bitters were integral to most every self-respecting heritage recipe. And back came bitters.
First trusty Angostura, Peychaud’s and Fee Brothers made their presence known. Then boutique producers—your Regan’s, your Bittermens, your Bar Keep, The Bitter Truth, Urban Moonshine—started stretching the envelope with flavors that go beyond the usual simple fruits and aromatic bitters. Today, you can also flavor your drink with such notions as maple (Urban Moonshine), baked apple (Bar Keep), grapefruit (The Bitter Truth), xocolatl mole (Bittermens), rhubarb (Fee Brothers), celery (Berg & Hauck’s), coffee (Master of Malt) and Memphis barbecue (Bitter End).
Stephan Berg, a cofounder of The Bitter Truth, says invention was born partially of necessity for him. A bartender in Germany when the movement heated up, he found the product largely unavailable, even while the roots of bitters trace back largely to Europe. (“But those were the snake-oil selling guys.”) So seven years ago he started making his own. But it wasn’t all invention from scratch: The Bitter Truth’s Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters pays homage to the seminal writer of cocktail recipe books, who, of course, had his own formula. Along with angostura bark, it includes notes of ginger, clove, orange, tangerine and almonds.
Part of the charm of today’s approach to bitters is that they can serve as a subtle nuance in an heirloom cocktail or can be layered on to evoke any of the distinct flavors now available. This writer was recently served a take on an Old Fashioned that was so inculcated with chocolate bitters that it became verily a separate drink from the original—full of savory cocoa and hints of smoke. It didn’t leave a bitter taste in my mouth.