We can’t seem to go out to a bar these days without seeing that enticing lineup of small, mysterious bottles of bitters. We see bartenders employ them in some of our favorite drinks, so they are clearly an essential component to any well-stocked home bar too. But it took some research (and, no, not just the liquid kind) for us to really understand them – how they came to be used in cocktails, which kind to use when and just how transformative those precious few drops can be.
Turns out bitters are as old as upset stomachs and overindulgence. The world’s first alcoholic beverage is thought to date back to China in 7000 B.C., where a fermented brew of grapes, rice, honey and hawthorn berry went down hatches tasting intensely bitter, but easing indigestion in the process. In 300 B.C., Hippocrates (Mr. “Let Food Be Thy Medicine” himself) drank a brew of steeped orzo and honey. In late 4 A.D., Apicius wrote that Romans added honey, clove and other spices to their post-orgy wine (if that isn’t a ringing endorsement).
Fast forward nearly two millennia, on this side of the pond, extremely bitter herbs and spices were preserved in alcohol and prescribed for digestive ailments in the 1700s and 1800s. Soon, people wanted their medicine to go down like a spoonful of sugar, so bartenders began mixing bitters into cocktails, like Angostura in a Manhattan and Peychaud’s in a Sazerac.
Bitters’ popularity waned with Prohibition, but they are back and bitter better than ever. Today’s bartenders no longer prescribe bitters as a medicinal cure-all; however, they rely on them plenty to add depth and dimension to their creations. Think of their role in cocktails as similar to salt’s role in food. Salting while cooking isn’t just to add the flavor of salt itself, but rather to draw out the flavors of all the ingredients in the dish. Similarly, a shake of bitters accentuates each component of a cocktail, resulting in a whole greater than the sum of the parts. This is our kind of math!
If you’re starting from square one with bitters, Hella Bitter’s Aromatic Blend is the one to try first. Warm spices like cinnamon, star anise and cloves balance the bitter notes of wormwood and calamus roots and other aromatic plant extracts. This blend will work modern magic in your Manhattan, or in a glass of soda water when you just want to wet your whistle. Zesty types should look no further than Hella Bitter’s Citrus Bitters, a recipe that masterfully blends nine types of citrus pith (from pomelos to satsumas), fragrant spices (from ginger to green cardamom) and bitter roots. Martini with a twist? Don’t mind if we do.
The ingredient lists on Urban Moonshine’s Maple and Chamomile Bitters labels read like gypsy charms, and we’re happily under their spell. The spray-topped bottles allow for careful application in cocktails, or straight into Mouths. Plus, as their maker suggests, they may well improve liver function and skin health, quell nausea, ease heartburn and aid digestion.
Placebo effect or not, they instantly refresh fatiguing palates. They taste so good that you may find yourself wanting to drop them straight into your mouth. Here at Mouth, pre-party, during the party and post-party, we’re spritzing these bitters like we did Bianca in the 80s.
For experimenters ready for a new frontier, there’s Wigle Whiskey’s Molé and Rosemary Lavender Bitters. As food-obsessed as we are, we can’t help but want to work these into our cooking (a glug of the deep, dark Molé bitters in beef chili, perhaps?) and baking (a splash of the Rosemary Lavender in ginger scones, maybe?), but we also wouldn’t turn down a Oaxacan-style Old-Fashioned or a herb gardened-up G&T.
Thirst for knowledge quenched, you’ll take these tonics over an Alka-Seltzer any day.