Sixteen years ago, I sidled up to the airport bar in Milan to order a last sip of Italy before flying home. I pointed to a bottle, the tall one on the end, yes, the one with the red label, yes, I’m sure, the one with il carciofo, the artichoke. Cynar, it was called.
The bartender was skeptical for good reason. I had no idea what it was, just that I hadn’t seen it before. He poured. I drank, then smiled. He shrugged. He didn’t care that another American had succumbed to the bittersweet charms of what the Italians broadly call amari.
I was captivated, though, and I wasn’t alone. Since then, consumers have grown increasingly fascinated with all things bitter.
Once-obscure bitter liqueurs (the kind you can drink on their own) and cocktail bitters (the officially “non-potable” ones doled out by the dash) are now widely available, and bartenders are putting creative spins on bitter-forward drinks like the Negroni.
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While it’s true that a few of these ingredients are of the love-it or hate-it variety, bitter is nothing to be afraid of, says Julie Ohno, a bartender at the Rieger who also makes her own cocktail bitters.
“A lot of people think adding a bitter element to a cocktail will make it bitter,” Ohno says. “But it can help balance out the cocktail and bring a different depth to it.”
That said, humans have an innate aversion to bitter foods because the taste can signal the presence of potentially harmful toxins. It’s what “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor” (Ten Speed Press, 2014), by Jennifer McLagan, calls a “natural defense system,” and it served our forebears well as they figured out what foods were safe to eat.
But here’s the paradox: Many people enjoy a degree of bitterness, and bitter foods often contain compounds that help protect against illness and boost health, McLagan says.
“Bitterness is a double-edged sword: it signals toxic and dangerous, but it can also be pleasurable and beneficial,” McLagan says.
Bitter herbs stimulate the appetite and aid digestion, and religious orders, doctors and apothecaries figured out centuries ago that steeping them in alcohol is an ideal way to extract and preserve their volatile compounds.
Most countries have their own favorite bitter liqueurs, digestifs, aperitifs and so on; “Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015), by Mark Bitterman, offers tasting notes and serving suggestions for 50. Among them are Italy’s vibrantly colored Campari and Aperol, and amari including Averna, Cardamaro and Nonino.
There are the aggressively bitter fernets, of which Fernet-Branca is the best known, as well as Becherovka from the Czech Republic, Underberg and Jägermeister from Germany, France’s Salers and Suze and others. Even American makers like Leopold Bros. and Letherbee Distillers are getting in on the act.
The almost always secret recipes include dozens of herbs, roots, spices and other botanicals such as bitter orange, cinnamon, cardoons, myrrh, star anise, hyssop, angelica, mint or eucalyptus. Each adds flavor, but the bite comes from things like gentian (a root from what McLagan calls the bitterest plant on the planet) and wormwood (a plant so bitter that it figures into the destruction foretold by the Book of Revelation).
Cinchona bark is another important bittering agent in liqueurs, but it’s best known as the source of quinine in tonic water. According to McLagan, Jesuit priests accompanying the Spanish conquistadors to Bolivia and Peru were the first Europeans to use it for fevers and malaria.
The potency of the bark varied, making treatment difficult, until French chemists in 1820 isolated the beneficial alkaloid compound quinine. The English then famously added quinine to soda water, paving the way for the gin and tonic.
Today’s tonic waters are typically clear and carbonated. While there’s something to be said for consistency, house-made tonic has become a favorite DIY project for professional and home bartenders alike. They typically use powdered cinchona bark, which looks a bit like cinnamon and yields an opaque, brownish syrup that’s then diluted to taste.
“People ask, ‘Why is it brown?’ ” says Jill Cockson, a bartender and co-owner of Rabbit & Turtle Beverage Corp., which makes Colonel Jesse’s Small Batch Tonic. “You can filter all that out, or you can leave it in like we do and have more flavor.”
Cockson created Colonel Jesse’s while living in Lincoln, Neb., where she was until recently operations manager and head bartender for the James Beard award-nominated the Other Room.
Now based in Kansas City, Cockson plans to open Swordfish Tom’s, an intimate bar serving pre-Prohibition-style drinks, later this year. Her Colonel Jesse’s lineup includes cucumber-ginger, lime-lemongrass and hop-chamomile-grapefruit; she’ll also soon add orange-cinnamon-clove.
If you’ve noticed a medicinal trend here, then you won’t be surprised to learn that’s how cocktail bitters also got their start. Angostura bitters were created in 1824 as a stomach remedy for Simon Bolivar’s soldiers, while a New Orleans pharmacist served his Peychaud’s bitters to customers in the early 1800s, claiming they were “good for what ailed one irrespective of malady.”
There were by some counts hundreds of cocktail bitters in use by the early 20th century, but few survived Prohibition. Angostura, Peychaud’s and Fee Brothers, which began making nonalcoholic flavorings during the drought, did, but distribution and interest remained limited. Angostura was often called for in recipes because it was the only brand you could buy.
That changed with the resurgence of classic cocktails in the late 1990s. The big three were joined first by Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6, and then brands like Bitter Truth, Scrappy’s and Bittermens. A slew of startups followed, and there are again hundreds on offer. (“Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari” includes notes on 500.)
Some are complex and aromatic, others evoke broader profiles like barbecue, while still more go for specific flavors such as chocolate, celery, coffee, grapefruit, lavender, habanero, cherry or sassafras. Their job? To add complexity and depth while balancing disparate components.
“If a drink is off-balance, if it’s a little too tart or sweet, adding bitters evens it out while bringing out different flavors,” the Rieger’s Ohno says.
Ohno began experimenting with cocktail bitters about three years ago, first by making recipes from “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All” (Ten Speed Press, 2011), by Brad Thomas Parsons, and then by creating her own combinations like blistered lemon, a Caribbean-spiced tiki-lime and boondocks (made with toasted walnuts and almonds) under the No. 22 Bitters label.
She’s still working out how to produce them for retail sale; in the meantime, Ohno uses them at the Rieger and shares gratis with bartender friends at Rye, Bluestem, Cleaver & Cork, Republica and elsewhere.
Ohno likes showcasing different bitters in Champagne cocktails or replacing Angostura in classic drinks. For those who crave a more bitter experience, she shakes up a Trinidad Sour, which calls for a full ounce of cocktail bitters.
That’s quite a lot, but, really, there aren’t any rules when it comes to bitters, Cockson says. She encourages experimentation; how much is enough depends on your own definition of delicious.
“You’re balancing a drink for your own palate,” Cockson says. “All the other flavors — sweet, sour — bitter pulls everything back together.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and spirits columnist; firstname.lastname@example.org, @BlithSpiritsKC
No single cocktail embodies our love of bitter like the Negroni, which is traditionally made with gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. And there’s no better time to experience it than during Negroni Week, an international event that in 2015 raised more than $320,000 for charities.
Here’s how it works: Local bars create their own versions of the Negroni and then donate at least $1 per drink to the charity of their choice. Many Kansas City-area bars will this year likely support Boys Grow, a not-for-profit that provides inner-city boys with mentoring, entrepreneurship experience and positive male role models.
“Being able to connect with such a small organization like Boys Grow is fantastic,” says Ryan Miller, a bartender and vice president of the Kansas City chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild, which is promoting the event. “You can immediately see the effect your contribution has.”
What’s in a dash?
Recipes measure cocktail bitters in dashes, but the actual quantity of that dash varies greatly. For better consistency, “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All,” by Brad Thomas Parson, recommends decanting them into a small bottle and dispensing with a dropper. Four to five drops equal one dash.
That said, “There’s no need to be bashful with your dash. Flip the bottle right over and shake it over the drink, like you’re doctoring a lunchtime burrito with hot sauce,” Parson says.
Want to learn more about bitter cocktail components? Explore these titles.
▪ “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor,” by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press, 2014)
A fascinating exploration of all things bitter, from different types of bitter flavors and how we discern them, to how to cook with and drink all manner of bitter foods and beverages.
▪ “Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015) by Mark Bitterman
A dense guide to making cocktail bitters, amari and cocktails, using bitters in cooking and evaluating some 500 bitters and 50 amari now on the market.
▪ “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All (Ten Speed Press, 2011) by Brad Thomas Parson
Many pros who make their own cocktail bitters started with this book. It explains what cocktail bitters are, introduces methods and ingredients and provides recipes for creating and using them in drinks and food.
The Cocktail Deconstructed
This is the fourth in a seven-part series on the making of a cocktail. Follow along as we break it down — spirits, sugar, bitters, water, citrus and other essentials — to arrive at the modern classic.
This recipe calls for a startling quantity of cocktail bitters, but “you’d never guess it has a full ounce,” says Julie Ohno, a bartender at the Rieger. “It’s really smooth and balanced. It’s delicious.”
Makes 1 drink
1/2 ounce rye whiskey (Ohno prefers Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond 100 Proof)
1 ounce orgeat syrup
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce Angostura bitters
Combine whiskey, orgeat, lemon juice and bitters in a shaker. Add ice and shake until cold. Strain into a Nick & Nora or other small cocktail glass. No garnish.
Per drink: 108 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 21 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 2 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
When Pigs Rye
Easy-drinking amari like Averna sub nicely for vermouth in the Manhattan and other cocktails. Although you can use bourbon, bartender Jill Cockson, who co-owns Rabbit & Turtle Beverage Corp. (the maker of Colonel Jesse’s Small Batch Tonic) and will later this year open Swordfish Tom’s downtown, prefers rye.
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey (or other straight rye whiskey)
1 ounce Averna Amaro
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Lemon twist, for garnish
Combine whiskey, Averna and bitters in an ice-filled mixing glass and stir until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with lemon twist.
Per drink: 208 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 1 milligram sodium, no dietary fiber.