You’ll know a true cocktail lover by the quick-but-intense scan he gives the bar before settling down in front of it. He is evaluating two things – first, the range of alcohol on display, but second and more importantly, the range of bitters. You know a serious cocktail bar by the pride it takes in its display of bitters (tip: look for the small Tabasco-like bottles with strange labels.) Sadly, at the moment in India, you’ll have to skim a fair spread of bars to find a bitters list that’s longer than two. But we’re getting there. Slowly.
What are bitters?
In the simplest terms, bitters are a highly concentrated, flavoured spirit. They are made by infusing or macerating a variety of fruits, herbs and spices into a high-proof alcohol. Generally bitters have 35-40% alcohol and are used as an aromatic flavouring agent in cocktails. Because they are so concentrated, a mere two or three dashes of bitters add a beautiful complexity and length to any cocktail. Though they might have lost their favour for a while before they came back with a bang, bitters have always been instrumental in cocktail-making. One of the first definitions of a cocktail is a combination of spirit, water, sugar and bitters.
Where did they come from?
Most bitters began as medicinal tonics, to cure everything from gout to kidney ailments in the 1800s. Right. A straight shot of alcohol to cure diseases – we’re definitely born in the wrong century. Luckily for us, these concoctions soon found their way into home kitchens, and then bars. Turns out this was exactly the kick that the old-timers had been missing in their cocktails all along. It’s ironic that something so unpalatable when tasted raw lends smoothness when added to a drink, rounding the harshness of the alcohol.
Some of us have been drinking bitters for ages without knowing it. Campari, Jagermeister, Cynar… sound familiar? These belong to the category of ‘potable bitters’ which means they can be had on their own.
Not everything tastes better with bitters. Well, okay, maybe it does. But still, know where and when to ask for uncustomary bitters in your drink. After all, it’s never good to piss off your bartender unless you’re okay with a side order of spit.
Who makes them?
Angostura: Without a doubt this one’s the most famous bitters there is. This is every bar’s staple. It makes an appearance in quite a few Indian bars too. You’ll recognise it by its ill-fitting white label. Why ill-fitting? Apparently the wrong size was ordered and everyone in the factory thought someone else would fix the mistake, but no one did and now the over sized label has become a trademark.
Regan’s Orange Bitters No.6: When Gary Regan he puts his face (and beard) on a bottle of bitters, safe to say it’s worth its weight in gold. This one packs quite a punch compared to the other orange bitters – spicy, rich and powerful.
The Bitter Truth, Fee Brothers and Boker’s Bitters are other notable brands of bitters.
So how do use these bitters in your drink? Read on.
How can you make them?
We asked around for a DIY recipe for that over-enthusiastic bunch. To achieve the level of concentration that bitters possess, the flavoured spirit is distilled a final time before it is ready. Understand then that unless you have easy access to a distillation pot, homemade bitters are a far stretch from the real deal. Still, it’s a great way to experiment with various flavours and figure what you like best.
Mixologist Arijit Bose of PCO in Vasant Vihar said that when he makes his bitters he uses a bit of Angostura to add the depth and length that distillation would give. So his recipe for Coriander Bitters is 300 ml of high-proof alcohol (Smirnoff, for example) with 100 gms of coriander. Leave it to steep for two weeks and then add 50-60 ml of Angostura. Because of the higher concentration of the coriander, the resultant bitters still hold the flavour, with just the right kick.
But then, sourcing your bitters can be hard, so just skip the added bitters and you’ll still have a decent concoction. Bose recommends beginning with saffron bitters: gin, a few slivers of saffron, two weeks of patience – and there’s your bitters with an Indian twist!
A word of warning – be careful what you use to make your bitters. Do your research to make sure there aren’t any harmful effects of the herb or spice you’re using.
Many classic cocktails call for the use of bitters, we ask Arjit Bose for two classic recipes and one with a twist from PCO :The Old-Fashioned
This version calls for the addition of a maraschino cherry and a slice of orange. Feel free to omit the fruit if you so desire.
2 ½ ounces of Bourbon
½ an Orange slice
1 Maraschino cherry, stem removed
3 dashes of Orange Bitters #4 or Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon of Water
½ teaspoon of superfine sugar
In an old-fashioned glass, combine the orange slice, cherry, bitters, water and sugar. Using the back of a spoon, muddle the ingredients, dissolving the sugar and mashing up the fruit. Fill the glass with ice cubes, add the bourbon and stir gently.
A native New Yorker, this bourbon base classic stems from the late 19th Century. It was possibly the first cocktail made from the US import, red Italian ‘Vino Vermouth’.
30 ml of Martini Rosso
30 ml of Rye Whisky
1 dash of Angostura Bitters
Place all the ingredients in a mixing glass with cubed ice. Stir 12 times in a clockwise direction. Single strain this into a martini glass. Garnish with a fresh cherry.
PCO 40 Deuce
This cocktail was created at PCO in Delhi and is a stunner.
50 ml of luxury vodka
15 ml of Monin Triple sec
10 ml of lime juice
45 ml of Ceres Grapefruit Juice
2-3 dashes of Lavender Bitters
In a shaker add the vodka, triple sec, lime juice and grapefruit juice. Shake and double strain the mixture into a martini glass and garnish with a few drops of Lavender bitters. Bliss.