It wasn't that long ago I remember having to specifically ask for bitters in my Manhattan. The request would typically send the bartender rummaging through the less-used potions hidden under the bar until she eventually emerged with a dusty bottle of Angostura in hand.
I'll skip the history lesson for now (besides, our own Michael Dietsch has done a great job writing about bitters history already), but suffice it to say that for a long time, the general public simply didn't understand how a few drops of anything, even a potent extract, could change the character of a drink.
How things have changed.
But, when Jamie Beurklian of the new company Bar40 Bitters reached out to me, I knew he was on to something special. As any good bartender knows, the difference between a good drink and a great drink is balance. And recently, bartenders have been reaching for a simple saline solution of water and salt to help suppress intense flavors and bring out the nuances in a drink.
Bar40 Bitters takes the saline concept to the next level. Their initial bitters release includes salt, sweet, sour, and even umami bitters. These represent four out of the five basic tastes that can be perceived by the tongue and all of them are bitter to some extent as well, which is why there's no "bitter" bitters.
I tried each of the bitters using Brad Thomas Parson's two-step technique: first I rubbed a few drops between my hands and smelled them to take in the aroma. Then, I added a few drops to a glass of sparkling water to see how the bitters played on the tongue.
Don't let the simple names of these bitters fool you: they are far from one-note wonders. Rather, these are full-flavored bitters packed with spices and herbs, though they are formulated more for base notes than to add an aromatic punch.
The 'sweet' bitters taste only mildly sweet, but they add a rich, cotton-candy like sensation to a drink (the effect is subtle, not overpowering). 'Sour' most closely resembles an orange bitters, but with less bitterness on the palate and slightly more acidity than you'd typically find in bitters. It makes your mouth water. The 'Salt' bitters taste the most like their namesake, but with the addition of supporting flavors (I suspect cinnamon and rosemary, but it was hard to tell). I could see it being used as an upgraded version of saline solution.
Of the four bitters I tried, the one that really stood out was 'Umami.' Best described in English as 'savory,' the umami flavor naturally occurs in seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, and some cheeses. As I tasted the umami bitters, I found myself picking out different nuances of those ingredients as the flavors played on my tongue. It was earthy and rich, like a slice of well-aged country ham. I found myself wanting to taste it again and again.
The Bar40 Umami bitters have been finding their way into more and more of my nightly cocktails. Whereas I normally have to choose one bitters over another, I feel no guilt over using both the umami bitters and a dash or two of a different aromatic bitters. The umami bitters give any stirred drink, particularly amaro-heavy recipes, a subtlety—a hint of mystery—and depth of flavor I really enjoy.
If these bitters are heavier on the base notes than on aromas, perhaps that's intentional. Jamie told me that his next project will be to develop a complimentary line of "olfactory" bitters. Smells good to me.
Bar40 Bitters are made in Canada and are currently only available in the United States through The Boston Shaker.
About the author:Kevin Liu likes to drink science and study cocktails. Wait, that's backward. Ask him geeky food and booze questions on twitter @kevinkliu. While you're at it, check out his book about cocktail science.
Tasting samples provided for review consideration.