Feeling a Little Bitter
Dating back to 7000 B.C. China, bitters have been a tremendous complement to many alcoholic beverages, adding complexity to cocktails as they align tastes and emphasize flavor notes. A boozy, flavored extract created by infusing tree barks, roots, fruit peels, and other various parts of plants, bitters nearly disappeared as a result of Prohibition in America, but they have made a roaring comeback in the last few decades. Available in hundreds of flavors, the majority of bitters fall under either aromatic, citrus, herbal, or nut umbrellas. Because the flavors are concentrated, the saying “a little goes a long way” is one to remember, and as such, most recipes call for “dashes” (that typically measures out to be six to eight drops) of bitters and some even require the precision of an eyedropper for measuring.
Here are three great recipes in which bitters star behind the scenes.
Mexican Firing Squad
The Mexican Firing Squad is a perfect tequila drink for summer, as it is fresh and enlivening with more depth than a margarita—thanks in no small part to the bitters. While we’re celebrating the miniscule details that are bitters, let’s go ahead and not only talk about the importance of using freshly squeezed lime juice over the store-bought stuff but also the advantages of making your own grenadine. The bottled stuff is super easy and cheap, but it also includes high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and dyes. Instead, start boiling down a cup of unsweetened, 100 percent pomegranate juice and stir in a 1/4 cup of sugar. Once it starts to become a syrup, let it cool and add a small squeeze of lemon juice. It’ll be the best grenadine you ever had and will take the Mexican Firing Squad to a new level. When adding tequila to a mixed drink, use a good, 100 percent agave offering (as in, no cheap stuff, but also no need to add an expensive brand that is meant to be sipped on its own).
2 ounces blanco tequila (we used Herradura)
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
3/4 ounce grenadine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Splash of soda water
Lime wedge and cherry for garnish
Shake the first four ingredients with ice. Strain into a Collins glass over fresh ice. Top with soda water and garnish.
Dark and Stormy
This wonderful beverage is best made with a dark rum that gives off slight hints of cherry, vanilla, and dark wood flavors. These are further awakened by the lime bitters and balanced nicely by the ginger beer.
3 ounces dark rum
4 ounces ginger beer
3 dashes lime bitters
2 lime wedges
Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add the bitters, the juice of one lime wedge, and the ginger beer in order. Add the rum slowly to create the two-color effect. Garnish with the second lime wedge.
There are a thousand takes on the Old-Fashioned, so one more won’t hurt. The drink is most often made with bourbon, but rye whiskey is commonly used as well. Sometimes the cocktail utilizes Angostura traditional bitters, sometimes orange bitters, and sometimes both. (We’re going with both and encourage you to play with the ratio to find the balance you like.) Sometimes white sugar cubes are used, sometimes its simple syrup, and other times its demerara sugar. Demerara sugar is the large-grained, partially refined, slightly brownish-colored sugar that adds a hint of caramel as it sweetens. The two bitters heightening the rye, combined with the hint of caramel, make this a great drink to pair with a medium-bodied cigar on a warm summer night.
2 ounces rye whiskey (we used Knob Creek Small Batch Rye)
2 dashes orange bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters
1/2 teaspoon demerara sugar
1/2 teaspoon hot water
2 orange peels
In a cold shaker, add the demerara sugar and the bitters and begin to muddle. Slowly add just enough hot water for the sugar to begin to turn into a paste. Add the orange peel and muddle slightly more, adding water as needed until the sugar is dissolved. Add ice cubes and the rye, and stir well. Strain the mixture into a rocks glass and serve neat, or, alternatively, serve it over a large ice cube (one that nearly fills the glass), and garnish the cocktail with the second orange peel.