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  • Jonathan Winters

The Basics of Bitters

Photo by Achim Schleuning

Bitters, what exactly are bitters and why do they matter? Why do we use them in cocktails?

Heck, those are some loaded questions right there. We all know we use bitters in cocktails, we know that there are bitter digestives, we know that Amari is a type of bitter, and we know there are beers called bitters. But what the heck are they really?

By definition, bitters are alcoholic spirits infused with plant matter, be it roots, leaves, herbs, fruits, or nuts.

But before I go any further, let’s dispose of the English bitters, which are not by any means a real infused bitter. It’s just a strong style of ale, and it really has nothing to do with this actual discussion - aside from a commonality of name.

So after that, let’s get back to traditional bitters. These are spirits infused with botanical matter. They are not distilled and maybe you’ve actually guessed, they have a bitter taste. With the exception of the Amari (which is the plural of Amaro), and similar digestifs, bitters are not meant to be drunk straight. In fact most of them would be so strong in terms of their botanical nature (not to mention the spirit), as to make you sick if you tried to drink them.

In fact, many of them are so strong as to be medicinal - and they were, or at least were perceived as having some healing properties. Some of the world’s most celebrated bitters started their lives, not as bitters but as medicinal extracts. Without the “would be” pharmacologists who infused them, we wouldn’t have bitters like Peychaud’s or Angostura.

So now we know what a bitter actually is, let’s move on to the next question. Why do bitters matter? Well theoretically bitters matter, because in nature bitter tends to be the taste of things that can make us sick. When something is that acrid, it’s usually a warning that it’s not good to eat or drink.

So it was, for our ancestors, but in the modern world we tend not to be foraging that much, and so our taste buds don’t often get too challenged by natural toxins. So unless you are either some sort of spy, or in line for some sort of contested inheritance - intentional poisoning, isn’t that common (not to mention that modern poisons have evolved to the point I suspect that a bitter taste isn’t likely to tip you to them).

So why do bitters matter? Maybe part of it is that it is the last frontier in terms of taste - a taste we are evolutionarily programed to avoid, and thus something we are the least experienced in. Moreover because of that evolutionary programming, our taste buds are highly attuned to even the slightest hint of bitterness. Bitterness wakes our taste buds and puts them on high alert - elevating all the tastes that go along with them.

Perhaps that’s why the bitter tastes involved in many spirits, including gin, whiskey, absinthe, and even IPA style beers call to some folks.

Of course, in nature, not all bitter tastes are toxic, hence flavors we love like arugula, mint, wormwood, grapefruit, olives, licorice, horseradish, kale, chicory, and more have found their way into the modern culinary world and we’ve come to enjoy them more and more.

But the key thing is that our bodies are so sensitive to bitter, that it doesn’t take much to wake our palate, allowing us to experience a greater depth of flavors, and experience them more completely. They add dimension, mouthfeel, and flavor too.

Provided of course we don’t use too much - or it will overwhelm what we are eating or drinking.

Which brings us to our third question. Why do we use them in cocktails?

I think if you’ve read this far you probably have a good idea of why we use them. We add them to heighten cocktails, but there is more.

Historically the very first definition of a cocktail, written back in 1806, said it had to include a spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. Since then a lot has changed and until recently bitters had largely fallen out of fashion, except perhaps with real cocktail aficionados and true mixologists.

Sure the well known classics were still used, but the bitters world contracted and far fewer varieties of bitters were produced, or garnered much of a market share. That stagnation was keenly felt until the recent resurgence of interest in classic cocktails.

That marked a turning point, for as we drank the classics, connoisseurs wanted more of the unique tastes that made those drinks classic in the first place, and mixologists rediscovered the flavors that different bitters could add.

To improve their drinks, they created their own custom bitters, with different flavors for different drinks. Not just to meld tastes, or to heighten the flavors, but to add what was lacking, be it celery, or orange, chocolate, lavender, or whatever was missing and to, give their cocktails unique distinctiveness. Perhaps because of that bitters have been called the bartenders spice rack.

Today you can buy just about any flavor of bitter. Take advantage of it. And when a recipe calls for a specified bitter, it’s probably worth trying that drink with just that bitter.

But of course feel free to experiment.

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