Now, you young folks won't remember this, but back in my day, when you wanted to make a cocktail, and you needed some cocktail bitters, you went to the soda-pop aisle of your grocery and found the shelves dedicated to mixers for adult beverages, and if you were lucky, you'd see a bottle of Angostura right there sitting next to the lime cordial and the sour mix and the tonic water.
Then about eight years ago, the bartender and booze writer Gary Regan formulated the newest and greatest recipe of his orange bitters, sensing a need in the marketplace, and so it came to pass that Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6 became available to bartenders and cocktail nerds.
These days, you kids are spoiled for choice. I decided one day to count the number of upstart companies producing bitters, and I had to stop when I got to 30 because I can't count much higher than that.
So I'm going to start an occasional series here, looking at the world of craft bitters. Each go-round, I'll look at three new(ish) companies that are making bitters, talk about what makes each company unique, and describe the bitters they're brewing up.
What the Heck Are Bitters?
Cocktail bitters are, as I like to say, the spice of the cocktail world. I think this description is apt for two reasons. First, they serve the same role in cocktails that spices do in food: they complement the main ingredient while adding nuances of flavor and complexity. Second, cocktail bitters are quite literally made of spices: roots such as gentian, barks such as cinnamon or angostura, seeds or pods such as cardamom, fruit peels, and so on. If you can cook with a spice, you can probably make bitters with it as well.
Let's get to the bitters, then, shall we?
Hella Bitter started with a Kickstarter campaign, which enabled the founders to move bitters production out of an apartment kitchen and into a commercial space in an industrial neighborhood of Queens. Hella offers just two products at present, an aromatic and a citrus. The latter features five types of citrus peel, plus ginger and other spices. The aromatic is on the model of Angostura, but emphasizes the use of baking spices such as cinnamon. Hella uses no artificial colorings or flavorings in its products.
I love their dedication to the classic forms. After all, aromatic and citrus were the first bitters available, and it makes sense to focus on those classics. Having tasted both, it's hard to pick a favorite, but I'm inclined toward the citrus. Most bitters makers are doing orange bitters, if they're doing anything citrusy at all, and I find that Hella's citrus has a complexity that a lot of orange bitters lack.
Hella's bitters are available at Whole Foods, West Elm Market, and Boston Shaker, or online at their website or Amazon.
Scrappy's is one of the oldest of the upstart bitters producers. Scrappy's ingredients are almost entirely organic, and they include no artificial colorings or flavorings. Eight flavors are available: lavender, grapefruit, orange, cardamom, chocolate, celery, lime, and aromatic.
Some bitters makers hew to the classics, like the aforementioned Hella. Others are more esoteric. Scrappy's is in the middle: aromatic, orange, and celery are classic bitters, and Scrappy's does them well. Of the esoteric flavors, I particularly like the cardamom. Try it in a martini or a gin and tonic. You'll be amazed.
Scrappy's Bitters are available at Cocktail Kingdom, Boston Shaker, Cask, Keg Works, and Anthropologie, as well as on Amazon.
Urban Moonshine is unique among bitters producers. They're herbalists. Their organic bitters and herbal tonics are intended to be used in the way bitters were first used, as digestive bitters. However, since they contain the traditional array of ingredients you find in cocktail bitters, they're suitable for mixing, as well. Urban offers three flavors: original (akin to an aromatic bitters), citrus, and maple. The bitters come in dropper bottles and, uniquely, spray bottles.
I find that a mist of maple or citrus bitters sprayed onto the surface of a cocktail is a lovely touch. Something else I love to do is to make an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, and then just before I stir the cocktail, add a couple of drops of maple bitters. The maple complements those drinks very well.
Urban Moonshine's bitters are available at natural food markets, Kalustyan's, Boston Shaker, and online at the Urban Moonshine site as well as on Amazon.
Your Turn, You Bittered Sling, You
So, what's your favorite bitters company?