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Bitter love: The secret weapon of top mixologists

Wonder what makes your favourite cocktail so tasty? Here's the bitter truth.
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Erin Henderson, June 14, 2013 6:42:07 AM

There’s just something about a well-made cocktail that makes you sit up a little straighter (at least initially), act a little better, feel a little … classier.

Maybe it’s the sound of ice cubes clinking against each other, or the satisfying weight of a rocks glass in your hand, or maybe it’s the romantic nostalgia for an era few of us have known that drinks like the Manhattan, Side Car or Old Fashioned conjure up.

The common denominator to these alluring cocktails, other than stunningly powerful booze, is they all contain bitters in their list of ingredients.

“It’s the simplest way to make good cocktails, great cocktails,” says Elan Marks, Director of Cocktails at Toronto’s Weslodge Saloon.

Move over Angostura…

Until very recently, all that we really saw here were the infamous Angostura bitters. Created in 1824 Venezuela to help soldiers ward off malaria, it’s a high-proof liquid blend of spices, roots and bark, and the recipe is so guarded the Smithsonian reports only five people know it.

“We have mad love for Angostura,” insists Marks, who also creates his own uniquely flavoured bitters from scratch, which can take up to eight weeks. “It’s quite the process.”

Marks, who stocks 13 flavours of bitters at Weslodge Saloon, started making his own because of the lack of selection in Ontario. Even though the market has opened up considerably, his house-made Tobacco-Chocolate, Chocolate-Walnut-Vanilla and Cherry-Vanilla bitters are still in heavy rotation at his bar, enhancing dark spirited elixirs such as the Old Fashioned and Side Car, often in conjunction with Angostura.

“They just pull everything together. Bitters are to a bartender what salt and pepper is to a chef.”

Bitters make it better

There’s really no limit to how many bitters you can use in a dark spirited cocktail, says Marks. Pairing the classic Angostura with flavours like chocolate or cherry, can bring out positive elements in a dark drink.

But it’s not only cocktails made of bourbons and whiskies that benefit from a dash or two of bitters. Light spirited drinks like the classic gin and tonic are heightened with a touch of grapefruit or lavender.

“Bitters are aromatic flavouring agents for cocktails that enhance and bind ingredients in the drink,” says Weslodge Saloon’s head bartender, George Kaplun.

Kaplun and Marks say home mixologists can raise their bar game by simply investing in a few quality bottles of bitters. Both agree on stocking Angostura, Peychaud and Chocolate for the darker spirits, while having Orange and Grapefruit on hand for the clear liquors. They say these will offer maximum flexibility for a myriad of drinks, and are reasonably easy to find.

Intrigued? Try making these classic cocktails from Elan Marks:

Old Fashioned

2 oz bourbon
.5oz rich simple syrup
6 dashes angostura bitters
10 drops xocolatl mole (Mexican chocolate) bitters orange oil

Stir, serve on the rocks with orange oil, in a old fashioned glass.

Gentlemen’s Quarterly

1.75 oz Bombay Sapphire Gin
.75 oz Benedictine
.25 oz Green Chartreuse
10 drops of hopped grapefruit bitters
Absinthe rinse

Stir, serve straight up in a coupette glass.

Photo by Kevin O’Mara (Brother O’Mara) via Flickr

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