Sweet on Bitters: A Creative Cocktail Trend

Chefs are taking their creativity to the bar, crafting fanciful new bitters to perk up cocktails with just a few drops

A jar packed with Campfire ingredients; next to it, after the solids have been strained out, the potent end product.
Photo by Jason Varney

Taking a seat at the bar of Pig & Prince restaurant in Montclair not long ago, a customer noticed a small bottle with a hand-written label that read, “Pastrami.” He asked the bartender, Matt Brown, to explain. Brown told him it was pastrami bitters, the latest bit of whimsy from the restaurant’s chef/owner, Michael Carrino.

The man laughed. “In that case,” he said, “I’ll have a pastrami and rye.”

Carrino didn’t have a goal in mind when he created the bitters. An inveterate tinkerer, he had simply found himself with leftover pickling spices after making a batch of pastrami for Pig & Prince’s Reuben sandwich. “Just goofy me, I decided to make bitters with it,” he says.

Carrino had packed the spices into a quart jar, poured in a 50/50 mix of vodka and bourbon, and set it in a cool, dark place. When he tasted it a month later, “I was like, Holy shit, this really tastes like something nice. So I threw it into an eye-dropper bottle and sent it out to the bar. The customer poked fun at it, but it turned out to taste good.”

Thus was a cocktail born.

Like flatbreads, marshmallows, scrapple and many other formerly old-hat foodstuffs, bitters are having their day in the artisanal sun. Bitters date to at least the 1700s (some say even to ancient Egypt). For some time afterward, they were hard to distinguish from patent medicines—concoctions of herbs, roots and barks hawked as “good for what ails you.” But a century before the 1906 U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act put an end to curative claims, bitters were adding complexity and aroma to this new sensation called the cocktail (first appearance of the word in English, 1806).

Prohibition wiped out all but a few makers. Angostura, Peychaud’s and Fee Brothers, all in business since the mid-1800s, endured. But not until the Rainbow Room mixologist Dale Degroff rose to fame in the late 1980s on an arsenal of new bitters-enhanced drinks was the way cleared for their present revival.

Bartenders, to be sure, are still in the game. Chris James, the award-winning mixologist of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, infuses bourbon with orange peel, hops and spices. A few drops of the resulting potion, he says, “adds depth of flavor” to martinis and Manhattans. James’s high-tech wrinkle is to put the dry and liquid ingredients in a vacuum-sealed bag so that outside air “basically applies constant pressure to whatever you’re trying to infuse.”

Now chefs are getting in on the fun. Though the number of available small-batch bitters have mushroomed (there are even mushroom bitters), “sometimes my mind is really thinking bizarre,” says Francesco Palmieri, chef/owner of the Orange Squirrel in Bloomfield. “So then it’s time to create.” He recently infused 190-proof Everclear grain alcohol with cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, star anise, orange peel and fennel. After three weeks, he strained out the solids, simmered a new batch of those spices in water with fresh cherries and Tabasco sauce, puréed it, dumped it into the original infusion, came back two weeks later and strained out the solids. Et voilà! Cherry Tabasco bitters. “I love the fact that it has a spicy component,” he says. “That’s a fun component in a cocktail.” He’ll be adding a few drops to pisco sours this summer.

For Kevin Cronin, chef of the Iron Room small-plates restaurant at the Atlantic City Bottle Company, an upscale bar in Atlantic City, making his own bitters strikes a blow against what he calls “the corporate takeover of the food world. Corporate products,” he explains, “are limiting, because things are already done for us. People eat at chain restaurants, stay at chain hotels, eat microwaved meals. It’s the same with bars. They all use the same brands and ingredients. Walk into most bars, you’ll see the same five bottles from Angostura and Fee Brothers. I can’t operate that way.”

Cronin chose Whistle Pig, an acclaimed, 100-proof rye, for his first foray. “Rye has spicy notes, so I wanted to jack up the spiciness with peppercorns, juniper, other spices and citrus, dried banana chips for sweetness and chunks of cherrywood as the bittering agent,” he says. He shook the bottle vigorously every day for two weeks. He likes the result, but he admits, “It’s the creative process that matters to me, not so much the outcome.”

Cronin calls his newest experiment in bitterology Jersey Campfire. To evoke the Pine Barrens, he added pine needles and chips of Northeast cedar to three whiskeys, including a deeply peaty-peppery, 114-proof, Corryvreckan Scotch from the Ardbeg distillery. “It’ll mean a lot to me if I’m able to pull it off,” he says. “If not, I just start all over again.”

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