You might have mistaken the bitters category for dead up until just a few years ago. But now, a plethora of inspiring launches means that this category is finally regaining the status it deserves, says Adam Elmegirab
That rug really tied the room together,’ is a much-quoted line from 1998 film The Big Lebowski, and it somewhat represents the role that bitters play in mixed drinks. Due to the many layers of flavour they contain, bitters assist in the integration of flavour within cocktails, bridging gaps between the various components, enhancing or complementing existing flavours, and adding layers of complexity, depth and character. Little in stature, big on flavour…
The plot of The Big Lebowski centres on The Dude seeking recompense for a damaged rug, and it would be fair to compare his quest to the score of bitters producers who have emerged in the last few years seeking to repair the damage inflicted on the bitters category by unscrupulous traders of the 1800s; the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which all-but-ended the boom of bitters as patent medicines; and finally Prohibition: the nail-in-the-coffin for the category.
WHAT ARE BITTERS?
It‘s worth noting that there are two common types of bitters, easily separated by the distinction set forth in the United States around the time of Prohibition: potable and non-potable. Potable bitters, such as Aperol, Campari, Fernet Branca and Jägermeister, are most often consumed on their own as aperitifs or digestifs. When bitter flavours come into contact with the human tongue they stimulate a sequence of events that set you up for a meal or help to aid the digestive process afterwards.
Non-potable bitters such as Angostura, Bittermens, Dr Adam Elmegirab’s, Peychaud’s and Regans’ are not intended to be imbibed on their own, and are essentially utilised as a liquid spice rack, typically dashed into drinks or food to act as a flavouring agent, binder and lengthener. These bitters were also the defining ingredient in the cocktail before it became an all-encapsulating term for any mixed drinks.
Bitters are compounds made by extracting the flavour of botanicals such as herbs, roots, barks and spices; though increasingly now the range is extending beyond your traditional ingredients to the likes of tamarind, chocolate and even bacon.
Breaking bitters down, you have four main components in their construction. Firstly you have a bittering agent, the role of which is obvious even to Mr. Magoo, such as quassia bark, gentian root, or wormwood. Secondly there will be a main flavouring, for example orange peel for orange bitters, star anise for Peychaud’s, or cardamom for Boker’s. This will more often than not be the heart of the bitters. Thirdly is the supporting cast, which is there to enhance and accentuate the dominant flavour, providing depth and character.
A botanical will have more than one note – take mace blades, for example, which are spicy, nutty and citrusy – so this cast is selected for its versatility. Lastly you have the liquid solution, in most cases this will be high-strength spirit, though non-alcoholic bitters can be prepared too.
Thankfully, dusty bottles of Angostura (and sometimes Peychaud’s) still adorned many a back bar through the dark days, as a constant reminder of the drinks of a bygone era. The current revival has mirrored the cocktail’s first Golden Age in the 1800s.
Then, early bitters of the spicy, aromatic variety, namely Angostura and Boker’s, were later joined by more exotic bottlings such as orange, peach and celery towards the end of the 19th century. This happened again in the noughties, with the early classic formulations joined by a range adopting a more culinary approach.
Fee Brothers of Rochester, New York, has been involved in the drinks industry since 1863 with a portfolio now boasting over 80 products. Bottles of Fee Orange Bitters from around 1930 are in existence, though you can see the current demand for flavour in their expanded range; Mint, Lemon, Grapefruit, Rhubarb, Cherry, Old Fashion and Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters.
Gary Regan rightly takes a lot of the credit for kick-starting the renaissance with his Regans’ Orange Bitters, put into production in 2005 after Regan had spent a number of years perfecting a recipe heavily influenced by one found in Charles H. Baker Jr’s excellent book, The Gentleman’s Companion, printed in 1939.
Hot on Regan’s heels were German bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck, who founded The Bitter Truth in 2006 after becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of bitters available in the European market. They now produce a line very much in the classic style, including Old Time Aromatic, Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter, Original Celery, Lemon, Hopped Grapefruit, Chocolate and Creole Bitters (anise, fruit, ginger).
Then 2007 saw the emergence of Bittermens in the US, formed by Avery and Janet Glasser, intertwining traditional bitters practices with a modern approach to flavour combinations: found in their Xocolatl Mole (cacao, cinnamon), Grapefruit (hops, grapefruit peel), ‘Elemakule Tiki (cinnamon, allspice, paprika), Boston Bittahs (camomile, citrus, salt) and Burlesque Bitters (hibiscus, berries).
I’d be remiss (and missing a trick) if I failed to mention my role, and my own bitters, in this story. In early 2009, Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Bitters came to be, through a successful bid to reformulate Boker’s Bitters, which had disappeared during Prohibition. The line now runs to Dandelion & Burdock (dandelion root, burdock root, citrus peel, ginger, anise), a reformulated Spanish Bitters (chamomile, citrus, coriander, orris root), Aphrodite Bitters (chocolate, cacao, coffee, ginger, chilli) and Christmas Bitters (cranberries, spices, citrus peel, port).
A Break from the Norm…
Just adding these six bitters to your back bar will open up a whole new world of flavour
Amargo Chuncho Bitters
40% abv. £6.83/7.5cl. Amathus Drinks, 020 8808 4181
Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters
Dry and bright, fresh grapefruit peel takes centre stage with hints of fennel, celery, anise and spicy hops; Exquisite in a Negroni or added to your favourite wheat beer with a rye on the side
53% abv. £16.25/12cl. Spencerfield Spirit Company, 01383 412144
Bob’s Abbotts Bitters
Heavily leaning toward cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and the unmistakable perfumed notes of Tonka bean, with toasted almond, sweet vanilla and floral notes throughout; sensational
40% abv. £17.95/10cl. Speciality Drinks, 020 8838 9444
Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters
Softly spiced and aromatic, cardamom pods, with hints of roasted coffee, eucalyptus-pine and orange peel lead to an intense, bitter finish; try in a Trader Vic Mai Tai or for a sublime Martinez.
31.5% abv. £11/10cl. Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Bitters, 07714 099 920
Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Dandelion & Burdock Bitters
Bittersweet and complex palate with a myriad of flavours including ginger, anise, lemon, orange and muscovado, before moving into a long, liquorice finish. Dash into a G&T or in a Chiapas Old Fashioned with Tequila and green tea syrup.
42% abv. £11/10cl. Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Bitters, 07714 099 920
The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
Earthy and vegetal with celery dominant supported by notes of lemongrass, coriander, ginger and orange peel; try in a Bloody Mary or a Celery Sour with gin, lemon, pineapple, sugar and egg white
44% abv. £12.95/20cl. Love Drinks, 207 501 9630
Progress is also being made in creating a bottling that’s modelled on Peach Bitters samples from the early 1900s. This approach is a combination of those adopted by The Bitter Truth and Bittermens, which gives a nod to both classic bitters and modern flavour combinations.
Bob’s Bitters, by Robert Petrie, has taken a slightly different approach, with his tincture-style bottlings concentrating on a single flavouring that allows bartenders to add a flavour-note which would otherwise be difficult to work into a beverage in its original physical form. Petrie has also worked alongside Jake Burger of the Portobello Star in London to reformulate another vintage bottling: Abbott’s Bitters from Baltimore, which suffered irreparable harm in the middle of the 20th century when the US Food and Drug Administration imposed a ban on the use of tonka beans in food and drink – the main flavouring used in Abbott’s.
These drivers have revolutionised and regenerated the bitters market, consolidating it as a category in its own right, with bartenders now able to ask, ‘Which bitters would be best utilised in this cocktail?’ instead of having to reach for that solitary, dusty bottle of bitters from the back bar.
A selection of other companies, predominantly in the US, has also joined the bitters movement in recent months; Scrappy’s, The Bitter End, Bittercube, Miracle Mile, Bitters Old Men, Bitter Tears, Urban Moonshine, Brooklyn Hemispherical, Hella Bitter, Snake Oil and Bar Code are just some of the names appearing on back bars; though they tend to be very, very-small-batch producers, more localised in their distribution – understandable, given many of the people behind them are still working bartenders.
THE FUTURE OF BITTERS
With those minds behind the creation of many bitters brands, the main players in the category have been making a concerted effort to give bartenders what they want – a task, admittedly, that is much easier when you’re a bartender yourself.
Production processes and the raw materials used in a particular bitters’ construction are now often common knowledge, which supports all the considerations one would have when creating or recreating a mixed drink. It also plays a major role in influencing the beverage programmes developed in bar-rooms, and in some cases laboratories, before they make their way onto completed listings.
Reinventing classics and offering seasonal drinks are two of the indisputable trends in cocktail lounges worldwide, which is borne out in the glut of products that have gained fame in recent times, such as Ransom Old Tom Gin, Crème Yvette, St Germain, rye whiskey and Pierre Ferrand 1840, and even moreso in the wealth of bitters now at our disposal. As cocktail culture continues to blossom, so does the bitters category.
For the first time in decades, bars can now offer up faithful reproductions of much-lauded cocktails such as the Martinez, Manhattan, Crusta or Marguerite, juxtaposed with the creative minds of bartenders who have developed an innovative array of uses.
THAT SPECIAL SOMTHING
Bitters are also now increasingly being offered to guests as a kind of condiment that they can add to their drinks at their own discretion. Simple serves such as the G&T can be adapted to suit the season: a few dashes of Hopped Grapefruit Bitters in spring or Christmas Bitters in winter, for example.
Botanical pairings with vermouths, gins and even beer serves have now become possible, while bartenders can be found using bitters to decorate cocktails with designs (much as a barista might toy with coffee foam), that also offer up an inviting aroma.
At the newly-opened Canon bar in Seattle, the bar-top has even been stained with bitters.
To the average man in the street, bitters may still be just a metaphorical rug, but for those in the know they really bring things together. You could say that when they’re around they make the lounge a far brighter place to be…