Five Flavor Cocktail Bitters Set, $34.99 (P1,801.46)
It's still unclear what the golfers are doing with all of those tees, but chances are, if you're the go-to bar back of your friend group, you've got a stack of eclectically flavored bitters gathering dust in your liquor cabinet. Not because you don't appreciate a finely mixed cocktail with a dash of bitters, but, well, let's just be honest: outside of old fashioneds and sazeracs, most of us are pretty clueless about bitters. And that's a shame because as any real deal bartender will tell you, bitters are the salt and pepper of the cocktail world.
WHAT ARE BITTERS?
Put simply, bitters are a flavoring extract made by macerating different ingredients—often dried botanicals that can range anywhere from fruit to bark—in a mixture of alcohol and water. Some brands also add sweeteners, colorants, or even glycerin, but at face value, bitters are a pretty basic concoction.
WHY DO I NEED THEM?
The purpose of bitters, as you might have guessed is to be bitter. Shocking, we know. As for why you'd want that, Avery Glasser, CEO of small-batch bitters creator Bittermens explains, "If you think about the flavors we get in cocktails, it's primarily sour (for citrus-based cocktails) and sweet (from added sugar). For a drink to feel complete when drinking it, you need to engage more of the primary tastes: it's why a margarita became so popular—it added a third taste: salty. Bitter is the fourth taste, so by adding small amounts of bitter to a drink, you're balancing it out and making it a bit more complex, which gives an overall more complete flavor profile."
WHAT BITTERS DO I NEED?
The most common type of bitters are called aromatic, with a warm-spice flavor that typically includes cloves and allspice; if you've ever seen a cocktail recipe that calls for Angostura bitters, that's what we're talking about here. Angostura was originally invented in Venezuela as a medical tincture, and rose to popularity in the 1850s, but it is far from the only aromatic game in town. "If you only have one bitter at home, then you need classic aromatic bitters," says Glasser. Orange bitters are also historic and very popular—almost every brand on the market makes one. Where aromatic bitters give cocktails a hint of hard-to-pin-down spice, orange bitters swoop in with a citrusy hit that brightens up a drink without added sweetness or acid.
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Angostura Aromatic Bitters, $13.68 (P704.31)
Angostura Orange Bitters, $11.26 (P579.72)
WHAT ABOUT ALL OF THOSE CRAZY FLAVORS?
"Before prohibition, there were dozens, if not hundreds of producers—each of them making a few different flavored bitters. Unfortunately, very few varieties survived," Glasser says. "Now, with a resurgence of classic and neo-classic cocktails, there's a resurgence of producers of cocktail bitters." So how are you supposed to pick when you're staring down a rainbow of droppers from rhubarb to lavender? Glasser recommends choosing based on the booze you like—bourbon pairs well with dessert-y undertones, so try something with warm spices or chocolate (he suggests Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters) while tequila gets along with spice and acid (give Hella Bitters Smoked Chili Bitters a shot) Still lost? Think of foods that pair well with your favorite cocktail, then hunt for bitters with similar flavorings. Voila!
Hella Bitters Smoked Chili Bitters, $22.99 (P1,183.64)
WHERE CAN I BUY THEM?
The key to finding bitters depends on where you live. As far as the government is concerned, products that contain ethyl alcohol (aka the stuff that gets you drunk), are considered beverage alcohol (alcohol that you drink) or non-beverage alcohol (alcohol that you won't be sitting down to a frosty mug of, which can include everything from gasoline additives to mouthwash to vanilla extract, and of course, bitters.) Since beverage alcohol requires special registration and sales of it are regulated by the state, each state has its own particular rules, including whether boozy beverages can share shelf space with items that aren't considered beverage alcohol. This categorization means that you can pick up cough syrup with alcohol in it even if you haven't hit 21 yet, but also that you might not be able to snag a bottle of wine on your grocery run. So, depending on where you call home, you may not be able to pick up bitters at your local bottle shop; check out your grocery store, specialty foods shops, or the wonderful world of the internet instead.
WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH THEM?
Make cocktails, obviously, but at just a few dashes per drink, a bottle of bitters goes a long way. Unless you're running a professional bar, odds are you're going to need more than a round of drinks to clear out your cabinets ahead of this year's tide of gifts. Fortunately, the culinary applications of bitters don't end at the wet bar. Acclaimed Brooklyn pie shop Four & Twenty Blackbirds shakes a little amount of aromatic bitters into some of their pie fillings to round out the natural sweetness of fruits, while a dash of citrus or herbaceous bitters will take a dollop of whipped cream from homemade to Michelin Star-fancy. Glasser recommends a touch of Bittermens Orchard Street Celery Shrub (which includes citric acid for zing) with steamed fish or in potato salad. And don't even get us started on the wonder of savory bitters splashed onto ice-cold oysters.
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Bittermens Orchard Street Celery Shrub, $18.84 (P969.98)
HOW SHOULD I STORE THEM?
Though most bitters contain enough potent compounds to keep them from going bad at room temperature, if you're using a brand that includes sugars or oils, tucking it in the fridge may be your best bet for flavor longevity. Check your bottle to see what the brand recommends to keep your cocktails tasting great all year—or however long that new gift set lasts.