Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: It's a Bitter, Bitter World

Let's get this weekend started right. Here's a cocktail to kick things off. Need more than one? Here you go. Cheers!

BittersFive years ago, if you were looking for a bar that could mix you a martini, 1930s style--that is, replete with a dash or two of orange bitters--in all likelihood you were just out of luck. Trying to find orange bitters in the dark days of 2002 was asking for disappointment.

Bitters of different styles and with different flavors have a special place in the history of mixology and are a defining ingredient in the original definition of the cocktail. But while the hardy souls at Fee Brothers in Rochester, New York, and Sazerac in New Orleans kept the bitters flame alive during the ingredient's darkest days, and paper-wrapped bottles of Angostura bitters could always be found next to the margarita salt at Safeway, bitters entered a long, steady decline beginning in the 1960s. For all the drinks that utilized bitters' seasoning power at the dawn of the 20th century, by the dawn of the 21st, they were all but extinct.

Now, as the Chicago Tribune noted last week, bitters aren't just creeping back--they're the new kudzu of the back bar. Bars such as the Violet Hour in Chicago, Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco and Vessel in Seattle carry assorted house bitters made with cherries, grapefruit, chilies, lavender, key limes and just about anything else you can imagine. Fee Brothers, the bitters standard bearer for many years, has recently released bottles of lemon bitters, grapefruit bitters and an especially delectable old-fashioned aromatic bitters that's been aged in used whiskey barrels. And in Germany, bartenders Alexander Hauck and Stephan Berg have created remarkable aromatic bitters, orange bitters and lemon bitters, worthy of the overseas shipping expense.

Cocktail expert Robert Hess is fond of comparing the use of bitters in a cocktail to the use of salt in a soup: if you taste it you've used too much, but if you don't use it at all, the flavor just seems flat. Given the work being done by bartenders and home mixologists, it's becoming a bitter, bitter world, and everyone can drink to that.

What's it look like from your perspective? Do you see more bitters in your favorite bar, or when you ask your bartender for bitters in your Manhattan, do you receive only a shrug?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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