I unscrew the top of the small, clouded vial in front of me and siphon a few drops of the smoky-smelling liquid inside into a dropper before dabbing them on my wrist. I lick and the burning sensation strikes instantly. Just as I begin to think, "My god, what have I done?" it backs off, leaving only a subtle smolder.
I just sampled a Habanero bitters, and I can't wait to try a cocktail with it.
It's Saturday, you've made it through the long week and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science and alcohol. Here's somethin' to pucker up about...
I'm at Amor y Amargo in New York's East Village. "Bar" isn't quite the right word for this place — it's a "Bitters Tasting Room and General Store," a showroom for Bittersmen bitters, which are made in super small batches across the river in Brooklyn. All of the cocktails here are tailored to highlight the bitters and they're delicious. Bitters have been making a major comeback in recent years, mostly due to classic cocktails making a comeback of their own.
Let's start off with some basics. Bitters come in two forms: tinctures and potables. Potables are much less strong (typically 20-30 per cent alcohol by volume), much less bitter and as the name would suggest, are drinkable on their own. Campari is probably the most famous potable bitter there is. So what's the difference between a potable bitter and a liqueur? "Not to sound like a smartarse, but bitterness," says Sother Teague, the man behind the bar, and one of the three people behind Bittersmen Bitters. "There's a bittering agent." We'll get to those in a second.
The other bitters, tinctures, are half culinary wizardry and half witchcraft. They're generally 40 to 55 per cent alcohol and come in much smaller bottles. They have strong flavours, too, so a little dab'll do ya. If a cocktail is soup, a tincture is seasoning.
"It's not romantic," says Amar y Amargo master barman Sother Teague about the process of making bitters. Bitters are not distilled from anything, nor is any fermentation involved. They are macerated, or steeped. Generally speaking, there are three components to a bitters recipe: alcohol, a bittering agent and flavouring agents. For the alcohol you want the strongest booze with the least flavour. Bittersmen uses 190-proof grain neutral spirits for theirs. Some people make bitters with water. This is wrong. "Water is a terrible extracting agent," says Sother. "Alcohol is great. It strips the flavours right out." Plus, that way adding bitters doesn't water down your drink any.
The most common bittering agents are quinine, orris, gentian and cinchona. All of these ingredients are (or were) known for curing various maladies. Indeed, bitters originated in medicine and were frequently sold as a sort of cure-all. For example, quinine, which is the main ingredient in tonic water, was often used to treat the symptoms associated with malaria. The gin and tonic wasn't created to make gin taste better, but to make quinine more palatable. A spoonful of booze makes the medicine go down.
For flavouring agents, virtually anything you can imagine can be used. It's often a complex and secret combination of botanicals. Angostura Bitters have been using the same recipe since the 1820s, and while it's well-known that gentian provides the bittering agent, it's rumoured that they use more than 40 botanicals for flavouring and the exact recipe is only known by five people. Citrus fruits are perhaps the most common flavoring agent, with cardamom and cinnamon being extremely popular as well.
Back to the "unromantic" process of making a small-batch bitters. Bittersmen gets 190L barrels of 190-proof spirits from upstate NY and dumps it in to a 208L plastic container, not unlike a large garbage can. They dump in the bittering agents and botanicals, then let is macerate for seven to nine days, depending on the flavour. Then they strain it. What you've got then is something very bitter, but it's going to be overwhelmed by the 190-proof booze (that's 95 per cent pure alcohol, for those of you playing the home game). So they water it down. How much water they add depends on the flavour. Their Burlesque Bitters are 44 per cent, where as their highly-praised Xocolatl Mole Bitters are 53 per cent.
Sounds easy, right? Well, yes and no. You don't need a still, and it doesn't take forever, but between hunting down all of those ingredients and getting the ratios just right, it can end up being an expensive and time-consuming endeavour. Plus, in many US states consumers cannot buy 190-proof spirits. In New York, for example, the highest you can get is 160. There are many how-to guides out there, but after tasting what the pros make, I'm more inclined to leave it to them on this one. The way the flavours are balanced are masterful, and it took years of experimentation to get them dialled. I'm willing to differ to their expertise... for now.
The crowd at Amor y Amargo has thinned out a little. Sother pours us a glass of Bittermens' Commonwealth Tonic Liqueur, a potable bitter distilled from quinine. It's strongly bitter, boozy and sweet. Refreshing, really. Then he adds some sparkling water to it. It's instantly the best tonic water I've ever tasted, and it's got a little kick of its own from the alcohol. "This way you can control the flavour of your gin and tonics without watering them down as much." Genius.
"You don't add bitters to make a drink really bitter," he says. "When you add a little salt to a chocolate cookie, it doesn't make it salty, it just brings out the other flavours. That's what bitters do for cocktails."
So, your home bar is obviously not complete without bitters. If you're just starting a bitters collection, from Bittermens, Teague recommends the Hopped Grapefruit to go with light spirits (vodka, gin, etc) and the Xocolatl Mole Bitters for darker spirits (rye, dark rum, bourbon). Of course, Angostura and Peychaud's bitters are classics.
"When you look back at cocktails in general, and you realise that the very first one was more of a formula than a recipe. Sugar, water, spirits, bitters. That's an Old Fashioned. That's is the cocktail, right? And people seem to have it in their heads that it's rye whiskey, angostura bitters, white sugar and water. It's not. It's sugar, water, spirits, bitters, which means I can use any spirit I can get my hands on. I can use white sugar, brown sugar, pomegranate, molasses..."
And that's what this cocktail resurgence is about. It's not all about some new technological breakthoughs. It's about realising that the rules we've been playing by were merely suggestions. That the playing field is more open than we thought. It's the same classic formula, but it's being looked at with fresh eyes, and it's leading to delicious results.
Thanks to Sother Teague for taking the time to talk with us. You can visit him and try all of these amazing bitters and cocktails at Amor y Amargo, 443 East 6th Street in NYC. Tell him Giz sent you, and check back here next Friday for more Happy Hour.