Newbies Guide to Bitters: Are They Worth It?

Newbies Guide to Bitters: Are They Worth It?

Bottom Line: they matter quite a lot; they magnify the aromatic depth of any cocktail by about 10x. It’s worth the investment so buy them!

Cocktail recipes are constantly asking for some specific kind of bitters… what the hell good are they? Is it just extra “stuff” like a garnish of a flower or sugared rim on a martini glass? Seriously: three drops of something is supposed to turn the barely drinkable into the sublime?

It’s hard enough buying all the ingredients for a decently stocked home bar capable of supporting a number of different drinks without sporting a collection of bitters vials underneath the shelf. Not to mention the potential waste of money. Most people want to mix liquor + sparking something (say rum and coke) and be done with it; splash of bitters need not apply.

Many of your typical “stock the bar” guides are near silent on the subject. Some will fleetingly mention Angostura Bitters and perhaps one or two others. In fact, the otherwise excellent Ultimate Guide to Spirits & Cocktails by H.F. Ullman (coming in about 10 pounds and 815 pages) says nothing on the subject of bitters at all. Yet all the classic cocktails: The Manhattan, Martinez, Sazerac, Old Fashioned, Brandy Cocktail… indeed, 5 of the top 10 classic cocktails offered by Colleen Graham require some form of bitters (and a sixth wants an egg white). We’ve also been amused at various episodes of Bar Rescue where the hapless and undertrained bartender dares to offer a cocktail to one of the experts sans bitters to their immediate harsh judgment.

But does it really matter?! Let’s put it through some tests and find out:

In Water

First things first: can we even figure out what bitters we were working with? Can these flavorings even differentiate water? Out of all the bitters, we put two dashes in 5 ounces of regular old tap water (Illinois’ best so probably a blend of plastic / methamphetamine / prescription drug flavor notes) then smelled and tasted blind. How obviously could you differentiate plain water versus water flavored with bitters?

Angostura Bitters

Very obvious, smells like you dropped in a fresh clove. A little cinnamon. Light brown color. Smells nice. Not so much on the taste but a definite finish of spice.

Peychaud’s Bitters

Obvious, smells of cherry but a much ligher nose than Angostura. Light red cast. Smells of black cherry of all things. Tastes like cherry water too. Supposedly, it’s supposed to have an anise (black licorice) accent but we don’t detect it until we realized we were supposed to. Knowing to look for it, one can detect a little anise fade.

Orange Bitters

Very obvious, smells of bright, fresh tangerine and Pez. Very nice. We cut into the rind of a bright fresh orange and compared… not the same but only in the sense that the acid comes through in the rind and is absent in the bitters. Still, the sensation is almost all aroma. The taste is subtle to the point of vanishing.

Peach Bitters

Subtle. The peach is there if you know to look for it but it’s not nearly as obvious as the others (so far). It vanishes. Gone. No flavor. It’s a coin flip whether or not one would notice if just served in a glass masquerading as tap water.

Cranberry Bitters

Very Obvious. It’s a scarlet red in the glass, so in appearance it’s definitely obvious. Smells just like cranberry—as advertised. Tastes like water with maybe a dash of fruit finish but not obvious at all on the taste. We’re identifying a trend.

Grapefruit Bitters

Obvious. It doesn’t smell like grapefruit. It smells like more like pepper on cantaloupe or something or pepper agave. It’s obvious that it’s there but it’s not obviously grapefruit. On the taste, it’s a bit of Angostura clove-like finish. Grapefruit? Really?

Chocolate Bitters

Beyond Obvious, smells like Hershey’s syrup. Or perhaps Godiva chocolate. Much purer aroma then a crème de cacao. But the aroma is all unsweetened chocolate… no hint of sweet. Taste is lightly chocolate until the finish, which is like a dry cocoa fade that lasts a languidly lingering long time.

 

What Did Learn?

Generally speaking, bitters do seem to have a sizable impact on the scent. In almost every case, the designated aroma enveloped the nose on its own with only a couple of dashes. Dilution could probably go twice as high with the same effect. Lots and lots of heavy dashes would easily flavor club soda in the case of the heaver bitters like Angostura or Chocolate. We’d guess, going into the cocktail setting, that the drinks will be influenced—especially in the initial assessment on the first drink of the night—but perhaps might lapse to less noticeable on subsequent drinks and weakening grip on sobriety.

Let’s find out.

In Cocktails

So, we put it to the test. We obtained a selection of bitters and made cocktails with and without. We even switched up different kinds of bitters to see if there’s any difference. And the results were on a scale of not noticeable at all to holy hell where’s my real drink! The goal is to really understand whether these things are worth your money…

Old Fashioned Cocktail: 1 slice orange and cherry with simple syrup, muddled, with 1 ½ ounce bourbon (we used Bulleit). Build in glass and stir with ice.

2 dashes Angostura in the cocktail.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

The drink without the bitters is just sort of, well, plain. It can be placed as an Old Fashioned. But then the other drink IS an Old Fashioned. The difference is hard to pinpoint but its absence is quite easily noticed.

Baileys Irish Cream shot: 1 ounce chilled.

2 dashes Chocolate mixed with the mixed shot. 

SORT OF WORTH THE PURCHASE with a heavy hand

With just 2 dashes, it’s just Baileys. No difference. But more, about 6 dashes, gives a nice chocolate-creamy finish. We can recommend for a heavy hand and chocolate idolaters (of which there are many).

Cranberry vodka: 1 part Sobieski vodka, 1 part cranberry cocktail, squeeze of lime.

2 dashes Cranberry bitters in a Vodka Cranberry cocktail.

WORTH THE PURCHASE

This made a rather substantial difference and made an ordinary drink something nice. The aroma is candied and more present. In blind trials, it was relatively easy to tell them apart.

 

Sea Breeze: 1 part Sobieski vodka; 1 parts grapefruit juice; 3 parts cranberry juice.

2 dashes Grapefruit bitters in a Sea Breeze cocktail.

WORTH THE PURCHASE Doubled Up

The standard drink is decent—again—but the accent from the bitters gives it a certain crisp élan. The pepper is muted to the point of gone (strangely). Of all the results, this was most surprising. In the drinking it is the difference between eating bread and eating toast. On a whim, we doubled up on the cranberry AND the grapefruit bitters (daring fools that we are) and were rewarded with an additional underlying sweet that made it even better. This drink went from good to delicious.

Scewdriver Cocktail: we used 1 part Sobieski; 2 parts orange juice.

2 Dashes Orange bitters in a Screwdriver cocktail.

NOTIONAL VALUE

The regular drink smells like orange juice and tastes like orange juice with a kick. Nothing surprising. There’s a subtle difference on the nose—but very subtle—and the flavor profile is “slicker” and less viscous. It’s better… but only mildly so.

Fuzzy Navel Cocktail: 1 part Sobieski; 1 part peach schnapps; juice from ½ fresh squeezed orange

2 dashes Peach bittersin a Fuzzy Navel cocktail.

NO VALUE WHATSOEVER

There not a ton of orange here… because of half an orange. But really we’re testing peach. This is actually a badly made drink, as it turns out (not enough orange) but what will bitters do to a badly made drink? Nothing. No difference worth speaking of. One can almost talk one’s self into believeing a difference, but it’s not there.

Sazerac Cocktail: 2 ounces rye whiskey (we used Old Potrero); a bit of simple syrup and 2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters; shake on ice and pour into a chilled martini glass refreshed with absinthe rinse (we used Myth). Garnish with a lemon twist.

2 dashs Peychaud’s in a Sazerac cocktail

SAZERAC DRINKERS MUST PURCHASE

All cocktails must answer to this, most perfect of cocktails. Out of the gate, there’s a huge  color difference between the two… the reddish hue of the Peychaud’s is obvious. The difference here is not in the aroma… it’s in the sweet. Without the bitters, this is an overly sweetened whiskey drink. Not bad but poorly mad. Adding the bitters makes it delicious because it dries up some of that sweetness and replaces with a hint of spice.  The color, the flavor, there’s a definite difference. Don’t mix without it.

 

Freestyling

Can reckless abandon ruin a drink? We made a Cranberry Vodka with a regular amount of cranberry bitters followed by an Absurd Amount of bitters. We don’t know how much but it was a lot: many, many shakes. Smelling, the difference was candy—cherry jolly rancher. The flavor, well—alas! the bitters earns its name. It shrivels the tongue and wilts the tummy like roses in the presence of the Wicked Witch of the East. Yuck.

In Summary

It turns out, bitters do make a difference. A lot more difference than a novice might imagine. Except in the cases of Peach and a bit with Orange, we find stark contrasts in drink profiles and water profiles when even small amounts of bitters are introduced. In just about every setting, bitters improves the drink. The fruit bitters can easily drown out bad vodka and the herbal bitters punch up whiskey cocktails.

For something that’s used a few dashes at a time and is relatively inexpensive, this makes them rather exceptional values and we find that they’re vastly underutilized in the marketplace. If your bartender’s not using them, then get upset. If your home bar lacks them, go out with your wallet open. 

by Neal MacDonald


2014-01-30
Published by Proof66.com