Like a chef's finishing touch of fleur de sel, a classic cocktail always tastes better with bitters. It doesn't take much, just a few dashes of these old-time elixirs to elevate the aromatics and enhance the flavors of your favorite adult libation.
The renaissance of craft and classic cocktails over the past decade has led to a renewed interest in bitters. Bartenders once didn't have many options past a couple of signature brands Angostura and Peychaud's bitters. Bitters now have a Baskin-Robbins-like array of flavors: cherry, lavender, rhubarb, chocolate, grapefruit, orange, lemon and much more.
Every well-stocked bar should have at least one bottle of bitters on standby, whether it's the home cocktail enthusiast or a bar program that's serious about its libations.
"They're the bartender's spice cabinet," said Chris Sinclair, president of the United States Bartenders' Guild's Sacramento chapter. "The technical definition of a cocktail is: spirits, sugar, bitters and water. If you're making a proper cocktail, bitters has to be in there."
Cocktail bitters have been used since the early 19th century, and in some cases bitters were hawked as cure-all tonics. Bitters generally have a base of high-proof alcohol, which is infused with herbs, spices and often a dozen or more ingredients. The bittering agent might come from cinchona bark, immature citrus peel or gentian root.
Infusing all the ingredients often takes weeks, with the final result showing strong, concentrated flavors that should be used sparingly. Today, a couple of dashes of bitters are used for their aromatics and to balance sweet cocktails. In the past, bitters were often used to hide the taste of harsh alcohol.
"In the speakeasies of the Prohibition era, people were drinking bootleg liquor that had to be made palatable," said Jesse Smith, who creates handcrafted bitters through Chico's Five by Five Tonic Co. "Bitters were added to make it taste like anise or pepper. The crafts spirits industry now uses bitters to complement flavors, like for matching the spice, vanilla and caramel (flavors) of whiskey."
Smith created Five by Five's aromatic bitters with the Manhattan in mind. The bitters' ingredients include anise, clove and pepper as a blend for spicing up cocktails, especially those that are whiskey-based.
Smith is a trained Chinese herbalist; his background isn't in bartending. The art of blending attracted him to bitters and how these little potions can really perk up a cocktail. Making a batch is its own kind of balancing act.
"A lot of ingredients in traditional bitters can draw back to the pharmacopeia in Chinese medicine," Smith said. "The trick is knowing what to use and how many of these botanicals you should use. Some are used in small amounts, some need to be ground up. You need to know how well they extract."
Five by Five's aged citrus bitters are an excellent addition to any cocktail repertoire. Aged tangerine peel is joined with 13 other ingredients, and these smooth citrusy flavors would be apt for a whiskey Old Fashioned or a martini.
Look for Five by Five bitters at Corti Brothers. They're also used at Samuel Horne's Tavern in Folsom.
Other bitters brands to consider are Scrappy's, Fee Brothers and Bittermen's.
A few dashes of bitters can be added to soda water for a refreshing drink. Use about two dashes of bitters for 5 to 6 ounces of soda water. Add a squeeze of lime for extra flavor.
Smith likes to incorporate bitters in his kitchen, not just the bar.
"Bitters are fun when used in cooking," he said. "You can use them for meat glazes, salad dressings and desserts. They also go nice with lemon and grapefruit soda."
With so many flavors and styles of bitters on the market, Sinclair of the bartenders guild encourages drink makers to experiment and see what works best with their personal palate.
"I like to use peach bitters with bourbon and violet bitters with Scotch," Sinclair said. "There's all these different flavor profiles, so think about it like cooking. You want to use complementary or contrasting flavors. It's like pairing food with wine."
Call The Bee's Chris Macias (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.