The bitter truth

History tells us that in originally, bitters were not only a complement but a necessity in the definition of a cocktail. Originally conceived as a medicinal tonic, bitters found their way as concentrated flavour stimulants that added the final kick to the mix and bring out the best qualities to each cocktail. In recent years, bitters have experienced a comeback along with the revival of classic cocktails. But do you know the crucial role that bitters play in the final presentation of a cocktail? Keep on reading;

By definition, a bitters is an alcoholic beverage similar to a spirit but principally derived from herbs and citrus dissolved in alcohol.

Bitters generally have a bitter or bittersweet flavour profile. They also commonly have an alcoholic strength of up to 45 per cent. But because they are so rich and full of flavour, bitters are normally consumed in small amounts (1/64 of an ounce to 1/32 of an ounce.)

Bitter liqueurs like Jagermeister were originally consumed for their medicinal qualities as much as their intoxicating properties, however, those mentioned here are considered digestif.

There are hundreds of brands of bitters but the worldwide bestseller and most readily available one in Canada is Angostura.

In addition to its original bitters, Angostura has an orange bitters that works well in  cosmopolitans, negronis and margaritas as well as most cocktails containing Campari, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, triple sec or blue curacao. Other exceptional orange bitters include Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, Stirrings’ Blood Orange Bitters and Fee Brothers’ West Indian Orange Bitters, which also produces grapefruit, peach, lemon and mint flavoured bitters. And then there’s Peychaud’s Bitters. While similar to Angostura, Peychaud’s has a big, bold red fruit flavour.

Over the years, the widespread use of bitters has dwindled due to the lack of education about this alcoholic liquor and bartender ambition. However, a couple of dashes of bitters can make an enormous difference in the depth of flavour in your drinks. They are also the best value for money investment a bar can make.

Take a traditional balanced cocktail like the Cuba Libre (rum and coke). Four elements are used to balance this drink and make it a bestseller: rum (strong); ice or water (weak), which balances the strength of the rum; cola (sweet); and lime (sour), which balances the  sweetness of the cola.

When balancing a cocktail based on these two axes, (strong versus weak, sweet versus sour), you end up with a drink that hits both sweet and sour taste receptors. Because the Cuba Libre hits two of the four taste sensors on the tongue — the others being salty and bitter — it is given a rank of two.

Then there’s the whisky sour, another cocktail classic. This drink has all the makings

of a great balanced cocktail. Even though its namesake is ‘sour,’ the addition of sugar or  simple syrup balances this drink and makes it palatable. Most bartenders use rye or bourbon, simple syrup and fresh lime juice to make this cocktail. However, if you look at the classic and sometimes forgotten recipe, it calls for two dashes of Angostura bitters. The addition of bitters to a whisky sour hits sweet, sour and bitter notes on the tongue, giving this drink a rank of three.

Drinks like the margarita naturally hit three of the four taste receptors — sweet (orange liqueur) balanced by sour (lime juice) and salty (salted glass rim). Adding a few dashes of orange bitters can create a cocktail that hits all four taste receptors, providing the drinker with an unparalleled taste experience.

So now you know all of this, get those bitters and pimp your cocktails to the next level.

See you behind the bar

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