"Why in the world would anybody willingly put something called bitters into a drink and hope for a good outcome?" Fee asks. "Really, it all comes down to getting [the public] to recognize that there are taste receptors in the mouth: You've got salty, you've got sweet, you've got sour, and you've got bitter. You really want anything that you're eating or drinking to tickle all of those, or it's going to taste shallow."
Just as a pasta sauce made from scratch should incorporate a balance of salty, sweet, sour, and bitter flavors, so should a cocktail, Fee says. And 99 percent of the time, if a drink's balance is not quite right, bitters will do the trick.
As Fee says, "Bitters are the cure-all for your mixing woes."
Bitters are essentially the allspice of your home bar, which is why they're worth stocking. Not to mention, they're cheap, take up little space, and a few drops go a long way.
The original cure-all was the gentian root-based Angostura, developed in the 1820s by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert as a tonic to sooth seasickness. Manufactured in its Venezuelan namesake and exported to the British Royal Navy, Angostura was taken with a few shots of Plymouth Gin, which subsequently took on a pink hue. The resulting cocktail, pink gin, crept into British bars in the mid-1800s.
Alongside the rising popularity of pink gin in England was the sazerac in New Orleans, accented with a similar gentian-based tonic: Peychaud's. But unlike Angostura, which outlived scores of other 19th-century tinctures to become a 20th-century best-seller, Peychaud's until very recently was a Louisiana anomaly.
"Bitters in general, they're hot," says Kevin Richards, brand manager at New Orleans-based Sazerac Co., which manufactures Peychaud's. "In terms of the growth rate, the past two to three years in particular are big." He cites the classic cocktail renaissance as a major influence and, in tandem, 21st-century bartenders' curiosity and self-education. "As mixologists are more playful with cocktails, bitters are part of that rebirth," he says.
Not to mention, a major Angostura shortage in late 2009 sent drink-makers scrambling for alternatives. Peychaud's, and smaller bottlers, picked up the slack. And while Richards can't release sales figures, he confirmed that Peychaud's experienced a double-digit growth rate over the last 12 to 24 months.
Though the bitters industry is growing, is it relevant? Does one really need to stock grapefruit bitters in the home bar, let alone Jamaican Jerk (by The Bitter End) or Burlesque (by Bittermens)? And is it necessary for bartenders to dream up their own when the market is already saturated?
As any cocktail enthusiast will tell you, yes. There's a variety for a reason. Bitters are the finishing touch that can make a good drink great.
Bitters "are very important, which is the primary reason why we don't make as many of our own," says Kevin Ludwig, owner and bar manager of craft cocktail joint Beaker & Flask in Portland, Ore., which makes its own grapefruit-fennel bitters but relies heavily on Peychaud's. Consistency, he says, is the concern. "We primarily use manufactured bitters, in terms of just straight bitters as an accent."
Mike Ryan, head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago, says there's "really no substitute" for Angostura, but argues that because of Sable's culinary approach to cocktails, "we try to make as many ingredients as we can." Featured on the current menu are house-made chocolate, orange, and lemon bitters. Gentian is the common base. But beer hops work, too.
Bitter hops were the starting point for Linsey Herman, a research and development manager for a Midwestern-based food company. Inspired by the Boston-based Bittermens line of very small-batch bitters, Herman first sought the ingredients to try her hand at bitters six years ago, conjuring fond memories, and flavors, of a Los Angeles tiki bar.
"Five years ago, I'm not sure your average consumer would know what to do with" bitters, Richards says. "Now, they at least know that you put them in cocktails. That's a pretty big leap."
Good, bitter, best
If you're only buying one, start with Angostura ($8 for 4 ounces), which many mixologists swear is irreplaceable. Peychaud's ($7 for 5 ounces) is an excellent secondary. Branching out into flavors? Try orange bitters, which add excellent dimension to dark spirits.
Less is more
Similar to vanilla extract or other highly concentrated flavoring agents, a little goes a long way. Two to three drops will do it.
If it ain't broke
Bitters are a great addition, but not necessary in all occasions. No need to reinvent the gin and tonic, for example.