The (Not-So) Bitter Truth

There’s one thing bothering me about my usual watering hole these days.  Well, two, the first being that they don’t have a good cognac on hand.  But the more shocking problem being that it’s a bar without bitters.  Really?  This boggles my mind.  Next time, I’m smuggling a bottle of bitters in my Nine West boots.  And so starts my less-than-illustrious career as a bootlegger…

Angostura Bitters by Chriusha @ WIkimedia Commons

The classic Angostura Bitters

For most of us, we don’t even have a clue what bitters is, exactly, even if we do order a drink that uses them.  Really, bitters just conjures up memories of stopping at the grocery store for some tonic water or grenadine and seeing that odd little bottle that we can’t fathom paying $9 for. But bitters are indispensable.  If you don’t have them in your liquor cabinet you’re missing out.

In general, bitters is alcohol strongly infused with herbs, spices, and usually some sort of fruit. Agnostura Bitters, the bottle with the too-big label you see at the grocery story, is the most common, the standard really.  Bitters were originally developed for medicinal use as something to calm upset stomachs, a usethat most everyone seems to have forgotten about now.  But I assure you, it works.  When I feel nauseous after a run, like when I sat down to write this article, I throw some bitters in with 7-Up.  Now I’m ready for pizza…

The very first cocktails, the Old Fashioned specifically (you can read about the Old Fashioned (you can read about the Old Fashioned here), relied on bitters for their flavor.  Citrus fruit and juices weren’t readily available, and generally neither were sodas.  But bitters kept well, and people generally had some on hand for upset stomachs.  And lo, the cocktail was born; bitters, sugar, water, booze.  And it was delicious.

See, bitters aren’t even bitter, per se.  Very flavorful?  Yes.  A dash really is all you need, and bitters impart a pleasant, herbal flavor that varies from brand to brand.  Lately I’ve been adding bitters to all sorts of drinks.  Whiskey and coke?  Dash of bitters.  Gin and tonic, cosmopolitan, hot toddy, all with a dash of bitters.  And it’s lovely.  Bitters can really bring out the flavor in a drink, and add some sophistication with it’s herbal notes.  If you’re unsure about bitters, get yourself a small glass of 7-Up with a dash of bitters, just to give it a try and get an idea how it changes the flavor of a drink.

Now, if you find yourself in a really great cocktail bar, be sure to ask if they carry any unusual bitters.  Angostura Bitters are the ones you see in the grocery store and are the gold standard. There are some other excellent, independently or mass produced bitters.  Most of them are variations on Angostura, some are orange bitters (made from orange peels) which are excellent, but, every so often you hit jackpot and find cherry bitters. But really, I’ve never had a “bad” bitters.  Just ones I like more than others, or ones that have more novelty.

If you’re looking for interesting ways to try out bitters, here are a few of my favorites.  This first one is my own creation, and my pre/in-flight beverage of choice.

Liquid Courage

1-2 ozs gin
dash of Angostura Bitters
ginger ale

Fill a bucket glass with ice.  Add your dash of bitters, an ounce or two of your favorite gin (I preferTanqueray).  Top with ginger ale.  Enjoy your settled stomach and soothed nerves.

Here’s one more for you, a tip of the hat to my beloved Old Fashioned.

Classic Champagne Cocktail

3-5 ozs champagne or sparkling wine
1 sugar cube
dash bitters
splash cognac

Set your sugar cube on a spoon and dash with the bitters, then set your sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute.  Top with chilled champagne, and then add a cognac float.  Revel in your glass of pink, effervescent joy.