If you’re a cocktail enthusiast, you’ve noticed the recent explosion of artisanal bitters. That dusty bottle of Angostura bitters just won’t cut it anymore when there are dozens of lovingly crafted alternatives. But what exactly are you supposed to do when confronted with chocolate mole, celery, rhubarb, grapefruit, peppermint, or lavender bitters (to name just a few)?
I’ll admit to being a little overwhelmed. But, lucky for me, the offices of Martha Stewart are home to hundreds of multi-talented individuals, and I only had to walk down the hall to get an education in bitters. Our very own Eddie Simeon, a project manager on the digital ops team by day, moonlights as a bitters baron. Along with three longtime friends, Eddie runs Hella Bitter, a small-batch bitters company.
Making bitters had been a hobby for years, and in 2011 the friends turned it into a business with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign and HBK Incubates – Hot Bread Kitchen’s business development program for start-up food businesses.
All bitters, in essence, are an infusion of spices and aromatics in a base of neutral (flavorless) spirits or glycerin. At Hella Bitter, they make their bitters using a cold infusion process: a bouquet garni or “spice ball,” in which their aromatics are added to mesh bags and left to steep in neutral grain alcohol for six, 12, or 30 days, depending on the assertiveness of the flavors in each bouquet. Their ingredients include gentian root, wormwood, cardamom pods, coriander, star anise, allspice, and roasted citrus peels. Before bottling, they add caramel, which gives the mixture depth and sweetness.
Asked what the best way is to taste bitters, Eddie recommended either putting a few drops on your hand, or adding two to four healthy drops to a glass of club soda. We tasted his two bitters varieties, Aromatic and Citrus, in soda, and . . . oh my stars! Where has this concept been all my life? It’s soda for grownups. Not only is the flavor seductive and sophisticated but, as Everday Food editor Jolene Bouchon says, “it settles your tummy. This is what I drank all through pregnancy. And as a bonus, it looks like a cocktail. Handy for when you’re not ready to start answering questions.”
In fact, bitters were first peddled by doctors in the 19th century as a cure for all manner of ailments, especially those of the stomach. Nausea, seasickness, indigestion, or a good ol’-fashioned hangover. To this day, the curative power of bitters is “bartender tribal knowledge,” as Eddie puts it.
But what about cocktails?
Eddie recommends the Old Fashioned as the benchmark cocktail for showcasing bitters. It’s just a sugar cube, bitters, and a spirit. Traditionally the spirit used is whiskey, but excellent variations can be made with aged rum or tequila. Use your imagination and your instincts to match the bitters with the spirit.
Once you taste bitters in soda and in a basic classic like an Old Fashioned (or a Champagne Cocktail if you prefer), you’ll start to get a sense of what bitters really adds to a drink. Bitters are to cocktails as spices are to cooking – an ingredient that can bridge the gap between an okay cocktail and a memorable, marvelous one.
Do you have a favorite kind of bitters and a favorite way to use them?