Cocktail Trends – Bitters
The speed at which trends travel and propagate nowadays is quite impressive; with our always on-the-go 24 hour constant source of information, something that makes noise in New York, can be all over Manila in just a few days (heard of Cronuts yet…?).
Food has always been a topic generating subject, we are a country obsessed with eating and even while having a meal we discuss previous bites and future cravings. As the drinking scene starts getting more varied and interesting locally, we will soon start being interested in cocktails and searching out our favourites. There are certain “magic” words that just read beautifully on a restaurant menu and that will always grab your attention, just like “pork belly”, “sweetbrads”, “papas amarillos”, “poularde” and “aji”; in the world of cocktails there is now a growing group of it ingredients that are a good harbinger of good things to come, a seal of quality that vouches for the passion of the specialist behind the bar. None is more enigmatic than Bitters.
David Wondrich tells us that the first patented bitters was in 1700 England. A product made with different herbs, barks, spices, roots, peels, flowers and botanicals infused in high proof alcohol. It was created as a cure-all kind of ingredient that could make hangovers go away or make your ailing tummy feel better. There is a general consensus amongst cocktail historians that the first drink to ever be called a “cocktail” was a combination of a spirit, alcohol, water, sugar and bitters. From the 1800s to 1920s prohibition, bitters was considered a cornerstone element of any proper cocktail, but it’s presence seemingly disappeared until about 10 years ago. Today, bitters is everywhere from the Neo-Speakeasies to the Bespoke bars, to the Craft Cocktail bars.
Anyone who considers himself a cocktail aficionado or who is serious with the art, hoardes these small, apothecary reminiscent, bottles at home or at his bar (guilty!). From making your own bitters to the smaller batch makers, to the more popular brands (angostura), there is no getting away from it. Going back to our kitchen/food references (both worlds are becoming increasingly similar), if salt is to food what sugar is to cocktails, bitters would be the pepper; not always necessary in ALL recipes, but extremely crucial to MOST. You see, our taste buds can distinguish 5 different flavour categories: sweet, salty, bitter, umami and sour. If you’ve been cooking or mixing for a while you will know that the interaction of flavours isn’t as straight forward as their names seem to imply. Try experimenting with these agents and you will see that the addition to salt to something sweet will not make it saltier all the time but can actually accentuate the sweetness.
There are 3 types of flavour interactions to be exact, suppression, additivity and predominance. Bitters’ addition to these different categories acts as a balancing act. Bitters is a moderator and makes sure that all the ingredients get along and are able to shine through. It used to balance sweetness, round out sourness and saltiness, highlights complexities and brings depth to a cocktail. Make an Old fashioned with bitters place it right beside one that has none and you will taste the difference almost automatically.
With the rise of the cocktail geeks, we are sure to see more obscure ingredients pop up and start being used in mixology as our culture evolves. Bitters is now a main stay in drinks and it is best you start experimenting with it to understand its true complexities. They always say to take everything with a grain of salt, but now you know that, in a bar, a dash of bitters is all you really need.