Thanks in part to a national resurgence in classic cocktails, and in part to our phenomenal local cocktail scene, bitters have been emerging as a major trend in drink and food. Made from high-proof spirits and infused with various spices, bitter roots, fruits, and herbs, these curious little bottles come in all sorts of variations: orange, cardamom, whiskey-barrel aged, chocolate, the list goes on.
With two major labels leading the way since the dawn of the cocktail—their niche’s Coke and Pepsi—Peychaud’s and Angostura have been used for centuries. They were originally used for medicinal purposes and according to the Peychaud’s label to cure “what ailed one, irrespective of malady.” Though they were a welcome remedy for your various affliction, they are not particularly tasty on their own. Instead of a spoonful of sugar, a glass full of hooch helped the medicine go down: and thusly born, the cocktail.
“Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters,” as defined in The Balance and Columbian Repository, 1806.
Does something added by the eyedropper even make a difference? And depending on the label, that can set you back as much as a decent bottle of booze? Are they worth it? By my accounts; the answer is a clear "yes." And here’s why: like salt and pepper on a steak, a little bit goes a long way. Sure, the flavor will be good if you throw it on a grill, but it needs that little extra something to take it to the next level. Therefore, I think of bitters as the seasoning in a cocktail. They are the simplest tool for the home bartender in taking a drink to the next level. Dangit, adding bitters to a cocktail feels good. It feels right . . . and you can taste the difference. If you are unfamiliar, add bitters to sparkling water and taste it before and after, so you can experience the flavors that will be imparted. Cheap bottle of bubbly that tastes like stale bread? Add a dash of bitters and it becomes quite delicious. Try a bit of rye with and without your dash of bitters and you can nearly feel a difference on your palate.
We have a carefully curated variety of bitters at Surdyk's. If you have a flavor you love (such as maple or cherry) start there and add to aged spirits (rum, brandy, whisky). As for me, I go for:
Dashfire’s “Vintage Orange No. 1,” which is made locally with the best quality ingredients. As an unabashed enjoyer of Bourbon, this little bottle makes the most killer Old Fashioned. It is a damn revelation.
Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters, made in Seattle, are perfect for adding to sparkling wine for the original “Champagne Cocktail” and I plan on trying a dash of them in an apple pie this fall. Angostura is my heads-up favorite in the classic bitters race. Aromatic, pale gold in color, and like another closely guarded secret, tastes like Coca-Cola. Add to ginger ale when you have a “malady” caused by too many glasses of red wine on Saturday night. Add to every classic cocktail calling for bitters and never look back.
—Lindsey Coleman @surdyksliquor