The bitter truth

An aromatic dash of cocktail balance

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West Side Tavern's Old Fashioned, elevated by chocolate and walnut bitters.
MAENPAA

A dash here, a drop there, all in the name of flavor. Bitters are a common cocktail ingredient, but what’s the actual point of all these different varieties?

“All good cocktails have a balance,” says Wes Isbutt, owner of Longmont’s West Side Tavern. “The amaros, the cordials, these varieties of flavors we use in cocktails, we balance them with citrus and we balance them with bitters.”

Take a classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned. Bitters bring out the depth in something that might otherwise veer toward overly sweet. Old Fashioneds typically call for a classic aromatic bitter like Angostura, bringing out some of the layers of cherry and citrus to lift them through the potency of bourbon. 

“Bitters are critical to a cocktail,” Isbutt explains. “It’s critical in the balance, but it’s also critical in making an interesting cocktail versus a boring one.”

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get to the bitter truth, or rather the truth about bitters. Akin to an herbal tincture, bitters are made by soaking botanicals in high-proof alcohol for an extended period of time, often combined with fruit and some sort of sweetener to bind it all together. 

Flavors range from rhubarb and cherry, to grapefruit, walnut and coffee, typically married with a list of herbs not out of place in an apothecary. Bitters must be, well, bitter, so some sort of agent needs to be added, commonly gentian root or various barks. The whole process takes a few weeks, perhaps longer if the alcohol is a lower proof, but the end result can be marvelous if you have the recipe dialed in.

The tincture as a medicinal supplement has roots dating as far back as the 1700s, according to Brad Thomas Parsons’ Bitters. Often touted as a cure-all, bitters may as well have been snake oil. The U.S. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which, among other things, required bitters producers to clearly label ingredients.

“This immediately affected the snake-oil-style patent medicine bitters, which were effectively shunned from the marketplace, and thus opened up the playing field for more reputable brands such as Abbott’s, Boker’s, and Angostura, which had been adopted behind the bar,” Parsons writes in his book.  

There is some merit to bitters’ mild restorative properties. This writer swears by club soda and a few heavy dashes of bitters to settle indigestion, but I wouldn’t necessarily go further than that.

Few bartenders worth their jiggers and bar spoons could run a cocktail program without at least several varieties of bitters. Circling back to the Old Fashioned, a shift in bitters can alter the whole profile of a cocktail. Isbutt opts to add equal parts walnut and chocolate bitters rather than a traditional aromatic like Angostura. The result is something smoother, highlighting the oaks and caramel of the whiskey over the citrus nose. 

For a fascinating variety of bitters, one has to look no further than Boulder’s Cocktail Punk. Run by Josh Laguna, Cocktail Punk’s variety of small-batch bitters run the gamut of flavors. 

Laguna’s eagerness to delve into the world of bitters is palpable as he waxes over the intricacies and complexities. Cocktail Punk makes its own version of the classics—aromatic, orange and grapefruit—but the varieties Laguna gets truly excited for are a touch off-kilter. 

“They’re like the spice cabinet of the cocktail world,” Laguna says. “It’s what you add to give a cocktail a special twist. Just the bitter flavor aspect, like sweetness or umami, it’s one of the main tasting profiles.”

The American Single Malt bitters are barrel-aged, designed specifically for whiskey cocktails, while the Alpino Cocktail bitters use sage and mint to mimic the profiles of a mountain amaro. Laguna makes homage to Colorado with local cherries, peaches and lavender in other varietals. 

With a dozen individual bitters, Cocktail Punk aims to make bitters that suit classic cocktails while serving bartenders looking to flex their creative skills. Laguna isn’t one to rest though, with several flavors in the pipeline including a ginger bitters that sounds promising as a replacement for Angostura in a classic rye cocktail like the Vieux Carre. 

Classic bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s will always have a place behind a bar, but creative bartenders require a broader spice cabinet. Bitters makers like Laguna will keep coming up with apothecarial wonders, and bartenders like Isbutt will find new and strange ways to implement them in their libations. 

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Email the author at mattmaenpaa@gmail.com

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