Once upon a time, to ask for a cocktail meant to ask for a spirit of your choice, mixed with water, sugar, and bitters. All three worked to balance and enhance the spirit lying underneath, awakening and taming it’s flavor, showing off it’s strengths, hiding its weaknesses. Now we just call this an Old-Fashioned, as in the old way of making cocktails, but bitters still play an essential role. Too sweet, too boozy, too bitter, too dry, and no one wants a second—or to finish the glass. Bitters are a main component in finding the balance. Their use slowly faded away until finally it seemed no drink used bitters in the 1980s, and well, you know how that turned out. Luckily, bitters have made a strong comeback.
But what are they?
Bitters are spices, herbs, fruit, and roots that are macerated in alcohol to create a bitter and/or bittersweet liquid.
That last part denotes two different families of bitters: those with no sweetener and those where sugar or another sweet additive does some balancing. You can look at the basic Old-Fashioned and think of it as combining two steps, though you might still need other sweet or bitter additions depending on what actual product you’re using. At their root (pun intended), certain bittering agents and other herbs and spices were thought to possess medicinal benefits (digestive aids, healing of joints, circulation, and more) best obtained through extraction of the oils and acids into alcohol. I can’t say whether medical benefits exist from a shot, say, of Fernet Branca, originally a stomach medicine containing anise, myrrh, cardamom, saffron, and many other herbs and spices, with a pronounced licorice-driven flavor. But Fernet Branca certainly warms my belly and enlivens my attitude.
Many people are familiar with Angostura bitters and their trademark over-sized label. No bar, whether professional or home, is complete without Angostura bitters, whose recipe is secret but contains herbs and spices and exactly 44.7%% alcohol. The Manhattan and the Old-Fashioned, in their present day whiskey-focused versions, commonly use Angostura bitters, though people often substitute their own bitters or a favorite artisanal brand that compliments the flavors of rye whiskey and bourbon. Orange bitters used to hang out with gin and dry vermouth in the martini. They contain orange peel with other spices and bittering agents—often gentian root, cardamom, caraway, coriander—to bring out and emphasize bitter citrus flavors.
Campari, in the recently popular and resurrected cocktail the Negroni, uses bittering agents and citrus peels to evoke bitter orange and grapefruit notes. The above bitters contain very little sweetness and tend to help a cocktail finish dry or at least cut against the sweetness of other ingredients. That stands somewhat in contrast to certain vermouths with bitter wormwood and other herbs balanced against the sweetness of fortified wine. Italian amaros and German krauters (amaro means bitter, krauter means herbal)—both of which come in a variety of flavors—balance bitter herbs and spices against caramel and rich sugar syrups, like Cynar, an artichoke-centric bitter. In some cases you combine more than one bittering element (vermouth + orange bitters for example) to balance other liqueurs or sugar in classic cocktails.
Where does this all get us? Drunk. But balanced! Yet perhaps, a little discombobulated. Bitters appear in most cocktails, in some form or another, to balance sweetness, compliment citrus, spice and herbaceous elements, and to awaken the tongue. Or, in some extreme cases, to punish.
The Toronto cocktail, a spin on the Manhattan using both Fernet (a bitter amaro) and a second bitters.
2 oz Rittenhouse rye
0.5 oz Fernet Branca
0.5 oz Sweet Vermouth (carpano antica works best, but so does Punt E Mes, a slightly more bitter vermouth. Dolin Rouge is alright)
1 sugar cube (can substitute 0.5 oz simple syrup or a barspoon’s worth, 1/8th oz of demerara syrup)
2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters (also can use Bittercube Orange or for a variation, Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla)
orange peel, oils expressed and used as garnish