A decade ago, the joke in the bartending community was that your bottle of Angostura Bitters would outlast your marriage. Flash forward 10 years, and bitters (not just Angostura, but a panorama of different flavors now available) are an important part of the arsenal of flavors that the new generation of mixologists uses. And it should be something you consider every time you pick up a cocktail shaker at home.
Bitters, intense tinctures of aromatic flavorings, have been around for centuries as digestives and are an integral part of the original definition of a cocktail (a mixture of spirits, sweetener and bitters). But as the meaning of cocktail was corrupted to refer to just any mixed drink, so was the use of bitters marginalized. You had to be old-fashioned enough to order an Old-Fashioned (or a huddle of other classics) to need bitters. Now we’re learning a few dashes will add character to almost any drink, and can even make the juvenile Cuba Libre seem grown-up.
Roots and barks are the flavors that give the traditional bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s (a necessary ingredient in a Sazerac) their zest. Gentian, the root that gives Moxie soft drink its moxie, is popular. However, such brands as Fee Brothers have long featured such fruit flavors as orange, lemon, cherry, grapefruit and even peach.
Now, more esoteric tastes are informing an advance guard of new bitters makers. The Bitter Truth has a celery and a chocolate bitters alongside more typical flavorings. Bar Keep makes organic bitters concocted by renowned mixologists, such as Adam Seger, and the offbeat tastes in its line include baked apple and lavender spice. Urban Moonshine, organically made in the not-so-urban Vermont, naturally features a maple bitters in its collection.
Still can’t find the esoteric bitters you yearn for? You can customize your own—as a slew of hotshot mixologists have taken to doing. At its simplest, the process is nothing more than soaking your chosen flavorings in alcohol for a few weeks and then straining them out. Of course, subtle nuances learned through experience will help you on your way. The Internet is full of tips from veterans that we don’t have room to confer. Please don’t be bitter.