Aromatics 101

Aromatics 101 at Proof66.com

What are Aromatics?

There’s a whole class of spirits that are specifically designed not to be drunk by themselves. Rather, they’re added in tinctures to cocktails. You’ve probably seen them: the little things that look like eyedropper bottles, wrapped in paper, or otherwise have very mysterious uses? The stuff most people don’t really know what to do with? They have a use… and mostly it’s in the nose. So we’ve taken to calling them "aromatics." Mostly, this means "bitters." But we also tend to put vermouth in this category as well (some people drink vermouth by itself but it’s rather rare in reality). If you’re looking to give your cocktail or spirit a punch, you’ll probably find it here. Are they worth it? Yes! Almost always. This is often the thing that makes a good drink great. More importantly, often offered in tiny bottles and imparted in tiny volumes, it’s easy to get frightened away from using it. Don’t let them do it to you! These things are easy and safe to add; they almost always elevate a drink in very interesting ways.

What are Bitters?

First, do not confuse these with "bitter liqueurs" such as Italian amaro liqueurs (Averna, Campari, Cynar, and so forth) or Krauter liqueurs (such as Jagermeister) and similar spirits that come in large bottles. Bitters as we mean them come in tiny bottles. More importantly they are not considered alcohol drinks by regulation and rather as food additives. This is because even if they have an alcohol base, they don’t affect the alcohol level of what they’re being put into. In the United States and other countries, they actually have to taste bad—that is, be "non-potable." We’ve heard stories of the regulators forcing distilleries to put flavoring agents in their bitters to make them taste worse in order to make them non-potable. The best way to think of these is to think of vanilla extract in cookies. It smells fantastic! But if you take a swig of it straight, you’ll barf all over the kitchen. Cocktail bitters are the same way. They’re additives. They come in an astonishing variety of flavors. They’re made by infusing or flavoring a base (often an alcohol) with few or many herbs, spice, and other elements. In antiquity, they began life as medicine and were often used to settle the stomach. Since medicine often tastes like hell, they mixed in sugar and alcohol to make it taste better (and presumably make them feel better about being sick). Thus, cocktail bitters were born. Angostura is the most famous. But many are fruit flavored (orange, rhubarb, cherry, lemon, etc.). Chocolate, mint, and other herbal flavors are also popular. Peychaud’s is famous in Louisiana. Spicy bitters are famous in Bloody Mary cocktails. Pro tip: "Bitters and Soda" is an old bartender’s drink and stomach salve. Usually provided free, it’s simply soda water and Angostura bitters served on ice. Order it at the bar, tip your bartender a few bucks, and he’ll wink knowingly back at you.

What is Vermouth?

Vermouth, similar to bitters, is flavored and infused with a broad variety of spices and herbs. It begins life as a wine (often pretty bad wine) and given flavoring agents to intensify certain elements that the distiller is aiming for. Technically, it’s not a distilled spirit at all but simply a flavored wine, though occasionally those wines are fortified with alcohol to raise the bottling proof. Also like bitters, they’re often sold in smaller bottles. They should generally be stored in the refrigerator not for fear of spoilage but simply because the herbs and spices may begin tasting off. While books and some aged drinkers will call for vermouth mixed with soda water (a very refreshing and very lightly alcohol drink on its own), the vastly more common use is as a flavoring agent in drinks like the Martini and the Manhattan. Categories are generally "dry" and "sweet" signaling a drier white wine and a sweeter red wine respectively. But "rose," "bianco," "blue," and many other styles of vermouth also exist. Like gin, people who make vermouth take their vermouth very, very seriously and consider their particular flavoring like the company’s personal signature on a product. Pro tip: for Martini enthusiasts, buying better and more expensive vermouth is almost always worth the price.

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