Warm, rich and sometimes spicy, bitters can transform a cocktail by balancing its flavours and adding a whole new dimension to the drink. Originally marketed as a cure-all medicine (with questionable levels of success), bitters has gone from purportedly soothing nausea and upset stomachs to being used as a staple bartending ingredient.
Following a simple process, all bitters are made by using high-proof spirits, which are then heavily infused in a distillation process with aromatic herbs, roots, seeds, plants and a bittering agent such as the gentian root or olive leaf extract. But it’s the weird and wacky (yet complimentary) ingredients that are sometimes used that make the product so interesting.
Mr Bitters founder (and Melbourne bartender) Jacob Taylor explains, “Bitters tend to add complexity to a drink. You can use them to add a whole new lingering taste to a cocktail, or accentuate any flavours already there. Often people can recognise that a drink with bitters tastes better, but they’re not always sure why.”
In recent years, bitters has been making a comeback. Where previously the versatile Angostura and Peychaud’s had dominated bar shelves, there is now a wider range of bitters coming in a variety of flavours. Taylor explains that his fascination with the ingredient, which only a few years ago was relatively difficult to find, was partly caused by his obsession with all things high quality and artisanal.
Lily Blacks is a bar that takes its bitters seriously and whose shelf displays a range of hard to find and lesser known bitters, such as American exports The Bitter Truth and Fee Brothers. Closer to home, however, Taylor and head bartender Benny McKew are often tasked with experimenting and creating homemade blends to “season” cocktails with.
“We match flavours in a similar way to chefs. For example, bolder based spirits generally need a bolder style of bitters,” McKew notes. “Conversely, a lighter and more floral style of bitters will stand up a lot better in a lighter styled spirit.”
For those who are curious, McKew suggests ordering an Old Fashioned to let the bitters shine through among the simple ingredients (nothing more than whiskey, sugar and water). But for a spot of experimentation, the bartender suggests the house-made Strawberry Shrub and Bob’s Abbott’s Bitters in the ‘Nouveaux Carre’ (a mixture of rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine and strawberry).
In saying so, the team behind the Lily Blacks bar counter have decided to take their love for the product to new heights and will soon be releasing a range of bitters under the name of Mr Bitters, available for purchase by fellow cocktail bars and bartenders around the city.
As with all experiments however, it hasn’t all gone according to plan. While the fig and cinnamon blend has become an unexpected favourite for Taylor, he recalls the not-so-successful sour pineapple blend, which unfortunately started to smell like cheese after a while.
“In the future, alongside our signature, we’re hoping to release some flavour combinations that we like. I know Benny has been working on a mix of white chocolate and jalapeno that we’re pretty excited about,” says Taylor.
So what makes the perfect bitters? Firstly, and quite obviously, the right kind of bitterness makes or breaks it. Taylor explains that the drinker should be able to detect the bitter taste long after the cocktail has been sipped on.
“If you don’t have that bitterness then the flavours can ‘get lost’ in a drink, and defeat the whole purpose of adding them in the first place,” he says.
Secondly, it’s important to create the right blend of flavours in the bitters before you can even think about matching it to the other cocktail ingredients. What makes Angostura [bitters] work so well, for example, is the classically compatible combination of clove, anise, gentian root and cinnamon.
Bitters may not be the cure-all it once claimed to be, but just like the salt and pepper to a meal, bitters can certainly take your cocktail to whole new level. That said, even the most seasoned bartenders still believe there may be some truth to the old claims. These days, bitters still stands as a way to soothe hiccups and stomach problems, though Taylor lets slip on an unlikely use of the bitter stuff.
“Over the course of history, bitters and tonics have been thought to cure everything from headaches to erection problems. We hear there are some bartenders from bars on Brunswick Street that swear by them for the latter reason. Lets hope for their sake that it works!”