There’s something behind every good bar that takes your drinks from standard to sublime, and there’s a (not so) secret weapon every mixologist worth his or her cocktail shaker wouldn’t live without. Contained in small, unimposing bottles, not much bigger than your palm, bitters are really a bartender’s unsung hero. Adding a wallop of flavour and depth to a drink, these classic elixirs are rightfully riding a tidal wave of popularity right now. You don’t need much — just a tiny bit — but as they say, it’s not the size of your bitters, it’s what you do with them that counts.
“Bitters are the ultimate way to achieve depth and complexity with a combination of ingredients where you can’t otherwise achieve it,” says Lauren Mote, the co-proprietor of Bittered Sling, a B.C.-based retail line of premium, artisanal bitters. “For example, try a Manhattan cocktail with and without aromatic bitters, you’ll notice an incredible difference,” she advises.
But wait. What the heck are bitters, anyway?
“Bitters are high-proof alcoholic infusions,” says Mote simply. “[They’re] a product and a specific technique, a natural extraction and preservation method using ‘good for you’ roots, spices, barks, and other agricultural ingredients.”
Perhaps most famous is the beloved Angostura bitters, a secret potion developed in 1824 in Venezuela by a doctor looking to fortify the local army against disease. Now a vital ingredient in many classic cocktails like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, Angostura has a sacred place on top mixologists’ bars…but it’s had to move over for young whipper snappers that are muscling in on its territory.
Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers opened its doors in Niagara in late 2012, and in addition to premium gin, vodka and rye, has a lengthy list of premium bitters. “A few more versatile bitters created by Dillon’s are DSB (a more traditional, multi-purpose bitter), lemon, lime, orange and ginger,” says Whitney Rorison, Dillon’s Hospitality Manager.
Don’t Try This at Home, Folks
Technically, any avid DIYer can find a bitter recipe on the internet and act out a scene à la Breaking Bad in their kitchen. Really, all you need is some spices, seeds, roots, citrus peel and edible alcohol. Throw it all together, seal it up and wait a few weeks and — voilà! — homemade bitters.
Yep, you could do that, but Mote, who researched her recipes for four years before opening Bittered Sling in 2012, cautions against it.
“Each ingredient should be well researched for its reaction under hot water and under alcohol. There is no doubt about it that making bitters is both rewarding and dangerous, so it’s important to be extremely thoughtful in your recipe, and well researched in your methods,” she says. And don’t forget always test on yourself before others.
However, with the numerous selections readily available today (both Bittered Sling and Dillon’s bitters are available online and in fine retailers across the country ) why bother making it at home?
“They are very labour intensive to make and take quite some time to produce (typically taking four to eight weeks),” says Rorison. “With more and more flavours and varieties on the market today, finding specific flavour profiles for cocktails is easier and easier for consumers.”
So kick back this weekend and try a bitter-laced cocktail (recipe below). Then tell us what you think about this mysterious, yet potent, ingredient.
The Westerly’s Mayday
- 3/4 oz Aperol
- 3/4 oz Dillons gin
- 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp simple syrup
- A few dashes of Dillon’s Rhubarb bitters
- Mix all ingredients, except Cava, over ice and pour into a rocks glass. Top with Cava and serve.