You wouldn't serve a steak without seasoning it. So, if you're looking to step up your home cocktail game, start considering bitters—flavor extracts made from herbs, roots, spices, flowers, nuts, and more—to be equally indispensable. "You can think of them as the salt and pepper of your cocktail," says Christa Cotton, owner and CEO of the award-winning El Guapo Bitters in New Orleans, Louisiana. While bitters were originally used for medicinal purposes, such as calming an upset stomach, they're now more frequently looked to for their ability to bring out different flavor profiles and add depth and character to mixed drinks. Just a dash or two takes a cocktail into new territory.
It's a Bitter Renaissance
The bitters market is rapidly expanding. "In the last decade, we've seen a resurgence in craft beer and wine, craft liquor and cocktails, and small makers in general," Cotton says. "People realize a lot of these lost arts have a place in our society and want to bring them back, which explains the sheer volume of new products coming to market." That includes traditional bitters—like the orange, clove, anise, and allspice flavors you associate with a classic Old Fashioned—as well as edgier ones, such as coffee, cucumber-lavender, even savory gumbo.
How Does It Get to Be Bitter?
Flavor can be extracted by steeping ingredients in straight grain alcohol, boiling them in a glycerin base, or a hybrid mix of both. Cotton doesn't favor one method over another, clarifying that it really comes down to the preference and purpose of the maker—particularly whether they wish to offer alcoholic or non-alcoholic bitters, which are held to different regulatory and packaging standards by the Tax and Trade Bureau or Food and Drug Administration respectively. Non-alcoholic bitters can also be consumed by pregnant women or those who abstain from alcohol due to addiction or preference. "There's a place for all three," Cotton says.
A more significant difference will come from using quality ingredients. "We use third-party certified organic spices, or ingredients locally procured from farmers we know by name," says Cotton. "It gives us a connection to community and economy. We care deeply about New Orleans as a whole and want to keep our dollars here as much as possible… Using the best sourcing possible and doing right by employees usually shows in the final product." El Guapo products are also free of added sugar, which Cotton says many companies use as a shortcut to fine-tune the flavor. "Anything under $10, the quality is probably not the same," she advises.
Some of the Many Ways to Use Bitters
When it comes to using bitters, Cotton likens the modern cocktail landscape to "the wild West." "It started with an Old Fashioned or Sazerac. Now, it's just as common to see a savory or fruity bitter poured with tequila," she says. "You can use any kind of alcohol, and the drinks can be easy or complicated… [Bitters are] also good in mocktails, with club soda or a cool garnish over ice." And don't stop there; you can cook with them, too. Cotton recommends adding a tablespoon of savory bitters to a marinades, soups, or even pimiento cheese. As for the sweeter varieties, try mixing them into whipped cream for a flavorful finish. Or rather—ahem—a bitter end.