Riff Diaries: Bitters

All you need is love bitters.

Bitters are the salt and pepper of cocktails. Without them, drinks will most definitely survive, especially if the base ingredients are high quality and mixed with an expert hand. But a dash or two of these high-proof tonics, can add layers to a drink in a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it way. They blend flavors together, smooth rough edges and add a third or fourth dimension of aroma where luminosity or spice may have been lacking. Not every drink needs them, but we’re of the mind that a couple of drops does any cocktail good. For example, the preferred PUNCH version of the Southside includes a dash of orange bitters, while our Pimm’s Cup calls for two dashes of Angostura bitters. When highlighting light, bright flavors use a dash or two of citrus bitters. If a drink is dark and spirit-forward, dash in something spice or dark-fruit driven.  

From sriracha to lavender to yuzu, so many variations have popped up that bartenders, both professional and home, “have a liquid seasoning cabinet” at their disposal, as Bitters author Brad Thomas Parsons puts it. Bitters have become the local-seasonal branding stamp for those seeking to reinvent classics or create ephemeral snapshots of a specific season or region. (Tristar strawberries don’t grow year-round or the country over, after all.) “We’re spoiled here in New York, so we get almost every type of bitters imaginable,” says Parsons, “but if you’re a bartender like Jim Meehan who wants to create drinks that can be made 20 or 50 years from now, you have to consider availability. Personally, I love the inventiveness and creativity coming out of the movement.”

In keeping with BTP’s method of experimenting with bitters, we’ve been busy breeding variations of the Champagne Cocktail (a bubbly play on the Old Fashioned). Where the original calls for soaking a sugar cube in Angostura bitters, Parsons sometimes adds an element of citrus, employing yuzu or Meyer lemon bitters in combination with a dot of Angostura “for that pretty amber hue.” Where most bitter applications blend and smooth flavors, the Sawyer (a Don Lee concoction) brings bitters front and center by layering a hefty dose of the “holy trinity” of orange, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters over a typical gimlet structure for an astringent, pleasantly bitter, brick-colored drink.

The American cocktail in all of its modern complexity was built on a basic structure that included bitters as part of the necessary blueprint, so Parsons always makes sure that the Old Fashioned is in heavy rotation. He makes one at home using two ounces of rye or bourbon, 1/4 ounce demerara syrup (2:1, sugar:water) and 2 to 3 dashes of Brooklyn Hemispherical‘s Black Mission Fig Bitters with a fat orange peel garnish. We’ve also included the Sazerac, a classic Angostura and Peychaud’s-infused riff on the Old Fashioned that remains one of the finest examples of how bitters can transform a drink. And last, but not least: though a bit unorthodox, the Angostura Sour is the ultimate bitters lover’s drink. Rather than layering bitters over a base, it uses a full ounce-and-a-half to create a curiously aromatic cocktail whose sum, however odd, is greater than its parts.