While many bars have decommissioned their battalion of bitters bottles—which once stood shoulder to shoulder on the bar top, ready to deploy a powerful dash or drop into an awaiting cocktail—in favor of a pared-down selection, it’s not uncommon to see the most reached-for brands or house blends standing alongside one or two bottled tinctures. Not nearly as flashy as their ornately labeled counterparts, unadorned tincture bottles can still be found rounding out the liquid seasoning rack of many bars. Known for delivering a concentrated blast of flavor, the tinctures gracing bar tops today have evolved from mere enhancers to highly unusual flavor bombs.
Like bitters, tinctures are historically medicinal and are made by steeping aromatic herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables in a high-proof neutral-grain spirit (typically Everclear), but unlike bitters, they typically offer a single-note expression. “Bitters tend to be a whole bunch of flavors in one, like it is its own cocktail or even its own seasoning," explains Brian Catapang, beverage manager of Magnus on Water in Biddeford, Maine. "Tinctures tend to be one or two concentrated flavors.”
As rosemary, orange, cinnamon, allspice and countless twists on hot pepper continue to serve as popular utility tinctures that can elevate similar flavors in a cocktail, the endless quest to level-up one’s drink-making arsenal has led a number of bartenders to steer their tinctures toward uncharted territory.
One such example is Catapang’s habanero and dulse seaweed tincture, which he perfected for the Microdose, a low-ABV drink composed of fino sherry, pisco, lime and sea salt syrup. “The umami from the dulse brings out the savory aspects of a good fino sherry and intensifies its brightness, while the salinity makes your mouth water,” says Catapang. “The dried habanero comes into play because you need that exclamation point to let you know that even though sherry is low-ABV, it still can bite back.”
Alex Jump, head bartender at Death & Co. Denver, also turned to the ocean for inspiration for her pineapple and oyster tincture, composed of spent oyster shells and pineapple pulp left over from juicing, which she spritzes over the surface of her Sea Stories cocktail, created for the 2020 Most Imaginative Bartender competition. But that’s not the only unorthodox tincture she’s turned to. While working at Denver’s Mercantile Dining & Provision in 2017, she baked up the idea for a rye bread tincture. Made with leftover hunks of rye bread from the kitchen soaked in an Everclear-vodka solution for two weeks, the tincture put the finishing touch on a slightly savory-leaning Tom Collins spiked with a pickled beet shrub.
“I use tinctures to add aromatics to a cocktail instead of adding flavor to the drink itself, so when I use them, it’s in an atomizer and spritzed over the drink,” explains Jump. But, notes Catapang, tinctures can easily be incorporated into the body of the drink as well. “When I add the tinctures to a drink pre-mixing, it’s to add depth or to bridge flavor in the overall product. A mixed-in tincture is subtle but has the important role of tying everything together, like glue.”
While many classic tinctures lean toward the savory side, it’s not uncommon to encounter new-look tinctures that fall on the other end of the spectrum. Consider the Birthday Cake tincture from Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Room. A combination of three commercial extracts—cake, vanilla and coconut—the tincture was a key component to the Birthday Cake Ramos Fizz, created by then–beverage director Paul Taylor, now co-owner of Your Only Friend, a forthcoming sandwich and cocktail spot. The drink starts with a split base of malty genever and Madeira, which is rounded out with lemon and lime, heavy cream, egg white and a sprinkle of Funfetti for garnish. “The show’s star is the birthday cake tincture, which pushes this cocktail’s flavor profile toward that of the yellow sheet cake from your childhood,” says Taylor, who recalls the hours of R&D required to get it right: “We began by baking an entire sheet cake, letting it sit in Everclear, freezing it, straining it, then running it through a Spinzall. We then experimented with extracts and nailed that sheet-cake flavor that reminded us of our childhood; it was too perfect, so that was the final recipe we went with.”
But even something as mundane as peppercorn can be transformed in tincture form. Dave Arnold’s black pepper tincture, shared in his book Liquid Intelligence, features a mélange of peppercorns (Malabar for pungency, Tellicherry for complex aroma, green for freshness) along with grains of paradise and cubebs, rapidly infused via iSi. “It results in a highly concentrated tincture that captures the top-note aromas of a product, rather than the muddy base notes that are extracted after a long-term infusion,” says Jack Schramm, a Brooklyn bartender who worked at Arnold’s Booker and Dax and Existing Conditions (both now permanently closed). Schramm notes that the tincture represents “the whole profile of what peppercorns can accomplish, from delicately spicy to floral,” and puts it to use in savory drinks like a Bloody Mary as well as gin-based sours.
This is, at its core, the power of tinctures. They enable bartenders to extract unfamiliar sensations from familiar flavors to deliver concentrated bursts of umami or spice—or birthday cake—in just about any drink. Of course, this can sometimes lead to too much of a particular flavor. Schramm recalls vacuum-distilling a batch of blended ghost chiles in a rotovap, a process that separated the “ethereal, fruity, grassy essence of chile” from the capsaicin (the chemical component in chile peppers that gives them their heat). The reserved four-alarm pure capsaicin pulp was cut with vodka, resulting in the ominous-sounding Death Bucket tincture. Though great in small doses for super-spicy Margaritas, Schramm and Arnold had other plans. “We even considered it as a challenge shot, so we both tried drinking a half-ounce,” recalls Schramm. “We determined that it was inhumane to serve.”