Bitters began as curative tinctures concocted from herbs, bark, seeds and such, steeped in (and made more palatable by) alcohol. Mixologists eventually picked up the bitters baton from apothecaries and ran with it. A few dashes of concentrated bitters (such as classic Angostura or Peychaud’s) became the final touch in many a cocktail.
Like everything in bar culture, bitters are burgeoning. At Montclair’s Pig & Prince, bar manager Adrienne Odendahl uses a host of house-made potions: pastrami (“spices up a Manhattan, brings out peppery notes in a tequila martini”); smoked black pepper (“wonderful in Negronis”); orange and anise (“fun in old fashioneds”); tobacco and raw leather (“in the Brando, one of our signature cocktails, made with Gaur Spice whiskey”). “Bitters,” she says, “offer a flexible way to play with flavors without changing the volume or texture of a cocktail.”
At Serenade in Chatham, sommelier and GM John Jansma makes his house aromatic bitters with cinchona bark, orange and lemon peel, allspice, star anise, cinnamon, peppercorns and Tahitian vanilla beans steeped in pure grain alcohol.
“Think of bitters as like adding salt to a sweet dish,” he says. “It’s an amplifier to bring out what is there in the spirits.”
If you’re getting into cocktail culture at home, Angostura and Peychaud’s are still considered basic essentials. But artisanal bitters are now being made in a rainbow of flavors. Better wine and spirit shops are likely to carry selections from brands such as Fee Brothers, Bitter Truth, Bittermens, Scrappy’s and more. You can find these at sites such as amazon.com, themeadow.com and babsupplies.com. Or curl up with Brad Thomas Parsons’s James Beard Award-winning book, Bitters: A Spirited History Of A Classic Cure-All, With Cocktails, Recipes And Formulas, and get busy concocting your own, as in the photo.