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Bitters Freak

November 22, 2013

What do you get for the food lover who has everything? Well, if they like cocktails, the answer is simple.

Hand crafted, small batch bitters. That, or Mandy Aftel’s chef’s essence sprays.

I think I may have a drinking problem. My drinking problem is that I don’t drink nearly enough to justify the sheer quantity of cocktail enhancers I want to bring into my life. Bitters is really a terrible name as it implies a single and limited flavor sensation. Yes, cocktail bitters exist to add complexity and backbone to your drinks. But they also add an avalanche aroma and can transform the everyday into the extraordinary.

Let’s back up a little bit. Within not-too-distant memory, I can recall a world without bitters. For years I was looking in vain for the orange bitters required to make a truly classic martini. When traveling in London, I finally found a bottle from Holland that claimed to be orange bitters, but now I realize that was a ghastly farce.

The existence of Fee Brothers during these dark days escaped me. The Internet wasn’t nearly as developed back then as it is today.

Yes, there are the supermarket bitters. Those mass market staples, were great in the past especially given the complete lack of other options. But they are also loaded up with coloring agents and who knows what else.

Like pickles, cocktail bitters aren’t terribly hard to make. They just take time, patience, and the right ingredients. If you’ve got the temperament to make your own, more power to you. I don’t. So I will gladly pay five, ten, or twenty bucks for a small vial of something wonderful.

The good news is that there are a dazzling array of bitters available on the market today. The bad news is that buying all of them, even in the smallest sizes, would cost hundreds of dollars.

That means you have to be smart. Rhubarb bitters may sound delightful, but think about how you might use them before bringing them home.

Right now, I have a small bottle of Scrappy’s old-fashioned aromatic bitters and an identical sized vial of their orange. At the store the lavender vial was really calling out to me too. I imagined enjoying gin drinks with fresh lemon and the perfume of these distinctive flowers. The White Lady cocktails I would be making would surely be a great fit for these bitters. But adding them would effectively transform the drink into something else entirely, and at that moment I was more interested in recreating the classic.

It’s possible that in hindsight, I regret that decision.

A spritz of the Aftelier black pepper chef’s essence changes a Martini into a black pepper martini or a Manhattan into a black pepper manhattan. For some reason, I have less difficulty accepting these minor (yet significant) aromatic tweaks than I do to other perversions of classic cocktails.

Perhaps it has something to do with their subtlety.

After all, at the heart of the drink it’s still the same thing. We’re just talking about adding a drop of this, or a whisper of that. And each of these products is made by hand by people who aren’t taking artificial shortcuts.

Sometimes these ingredients can be used to fix problems with your drinks. Take my bottle of Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Spanish bitters from Scotland. To me, its aromatics combine in a way that is redolent of shredded tobacco leaves. Anyway, on a lark I picked up a bottle of cheap German sparkling wine at Trader Joe’s. As fate would have it, the wine was a bit sweeter than I expected. But a good shake of these bitters in the champagne flute turned a mediocre wine into something much better.

I thought I was done buying bitters until I spied a small one ounce dropper bottle of Bittercube’s limited batch Door County Hop Bitters. Yes, it may have been $10 an ounce. But this stuff is amazing. I’ve already tried a gin drink that uses a 4:1 ratio of gin to sherry. It’s an odd combination, but like The Dude’s rug, the bitters truly tie the whole thing together. It’s remarkable.

My purchasing behavior may look like I’m demonstrating a lack of restraint, but the truth is just the opposite. Despite the number of bottles I already have and the distinct likelihood that I won’t finish any of them before it’s time to pack up and head back to New York, there were even more bitters that I really wanted to buy. Walking out with just the one took a lot of strength.

The fact is that there are so many different producers of bitters out there, it’s unlikely you will buy something that your friend or loved one already has. And maybe your pick wouldn’t be their first choice, but now you’ve given them a new flavor to work with in their arsenal of cocktail tools.

And every time they shake out a distinctive aromatic drop of bitters or add a spritz of chef’s essence, they’ll be thinking of you. Given how long even these small bottles last, this will be the gift that keeps on giving.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 25, 2013 6:11 pm

    Check out thee Meadows in NYC, Great selection of Bitters, was there 2 weekends ago.

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