The Bitters Truth
Here’s what you need to know when mixing with bitters.
Black Cloud bitters
Photograph by Brent Mykytyshyn
Bitters are flavouring agents used in cocktails, often referred to as a drink’s seasoning. They are often packaged in cute little bottles with droppers, and come in flavours ranging from celery to black walnut.
Bitters came into fashion before Prohibition as a kind of natural medicine. Traditional recipes contained alcohol (45 per cent) and herbs and spices such as gentian (a bitter root), wormwood and cinnamon.
The Canadian palate isn’t really primed for the flavour “bitter” – we prefer sweet, salty and sour. So, back in the day, bitters were often dosed with alcohol to improve their flavour. Eventually, bitters in cocktails became the norm and many classic recipes call for them, such as the manhattan, old fashioned and pisco sour.
As classic cocktails have again become mainstream, so too have bitters … in bartending circles, anyway. Mixologists use them to add depth of flavour to cocktails; they consider them crucial seasonings that – like a playground aide – help a drink’s ingredients play nice together.
Home bartenders, however, are still somewhat baffled and intimidated by the vast array of bitters now available. We’re told we should use them, but how? Bartenders advise starting with a general aromatic bitters such as Angostura or Peychaud’s, common in drinks like a Sazerac or rum punch. Play around and, as you become more confident, add orange or citrus bitters to your repertoire (delicious in gin cocktails).
While there are no hard and fast rules about bitters, you can overdo it. As with drinking in general, moderation is key.