When Bitters Are Better
Bitters were once just medicine: spices and herbs and ground-up roots, dissolved into alcohol. Like any medicinal, it can taste rather harsh. But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my fumbling quest to understand cocktails is that a few drops can transform a drink.
I’ve accumulated a hefty collection of little bottles — but there are only two that I reach for with any frequency. The most important, by far, is my bottle of Angostura bitters. These, produced in Trinidad and Tobago following a secret recipe, are the archetypal aromatic bitters and provide drinks with a sparkle of spiciness.
My second go-to is orange bitters. These, and citrus bitters generally, do well with unaged spirits. (Throughout the early decades of the 20th century, the fashion was to dash orange bitters into a martini, a practice I still endorse.) They can be paired with aromatic bitters to add a second layer of flavor to a darker drink.
I’ve got plenty of other flavors, too: celery, hot pepper, clove. Despite their infrequent use, I regret none of these. They’re relatively cheap, and fun to play around with. Whenever I buy a bottle, I try to get a sense of its taste. My favorite way to do this is to get my hands dirty: I place a few drops into one palm, rub my palms together, and cup my hands over my nose. A few drops into a glass of seltzer is revealing, too.
Essential cocktail: The Old-Fashioned
Recently, I tried an at-home experiment that doubled as a bit of time-travel: a shot of whiskey; a half teaspoon of water; a half teaspoon of sugar. Stir and sip.
Voila: like that, I’d wound back to the 18th century. This is, roughly, what colonial quaffers would have called a “sling.”
Then I repeated the process, adding two dashes of Angostura bitters. Now there was a bright burst of spice, a bit of drama after the bracing hit of whiskey. A little “narrative arc,” as bartender Joaquin Símo calls the necessary shape of an excellent drink.
This concoction, first stirred up around 1800, became known as the “cock-tail.” It was so influential that it eventually lent its name to the entire category. A hundred years later, people asked for the original by ordering “an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail.” Today, we’ve shortened that further — thus the “old-fashioned.”
- 2 oz whiskey
- ½ teaspoon sugar (or 1 sugar cube)
- ½ teaspoon water
- 1–2 dashes aromatic bitters
Place the sugar in a rocks glass and dash bitters on top. Muddle together, then add water, bourbon, and ice. Stir. Express a lemon peel over the top, then drop it in the glass as a garnish.
Then, of course, drink. If things turn watery as you get toward the bottom, don’t be afraid to add a bit more whiskey and ice.
For such a simple drink, I’ve found the old-fashioned presents a tremendous range of options. More booze? Brown sugar instead of white? Orange peel instead of lemon? Leave out water entirely for a particularly bracing drink? (This will keep your sugar from fully dissolving, but also results in a bit of crusty, spicy sugar at the bottom of the glass.) When I’m too lazy to muck up sugar, I just use a tiny dollop of simple syrup. As a bitters-lover, I up the number of dashes, too — and sometimes add two dashes of orange bitters to round things out. As always with cocktails, I let my taste be my guide.
Essential technique: Icemaking
In such a simple cocktail, ice can be critical: The rate that it melts will determine how long your drink can last. Ice also happens to inspire some of the most divergent responses from the bartenders I’ve interviewed. Some serious bars use “large format” ice, giant blocks that they can chip and carve down to the appropriate size — and it’s possible to do something similar at home, by making ice in plastic containers. Other bars have commercial ice machines that churn out little watery squiggles. Jeffrey Morgenthaler — whose program at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, has been nominated for seven James Beard Awards — told me he gets by just fine with such machines.
When it comes to at-home bartending, I stand by the ethos with which I started my cocktail journey: Things are better when they’re simple.
I’ve learned a few other worthwhile pointers along the way, though: First, I use filtered water, which produces nice, clear ice — though really I do this because I live in New Orleans and do not trust the pipes. At the behest of Símo, I also store my ice in plastic Ziploc bags. That prevents the ice from taking on the flavor of last week’s leftover beef stew — and also means that, with just two ice-making trays in my freezer, I can increase my supply. Finally, I have a small silicon tray for freezing big, two-inch ice cubes — which is the ice I like in my old-fashioneds, because the cubes take longer to melt.
The rate that ice melts is, really, the most advanced science I ever worry about. Small cubes go faster; so do wet and slippery cubes. (When I’m working with a bag of ice picked up at the gas station, I try to shake or stir less.) The good news is that most home freezers make drier ice at a higher quality than commercial ice machines.
If you don’t yet know the taste of bitters, I suggest you, like I did, make yourself a sling and then an old-fashioned. You’ll taste the quantum leap.
Then, head to your favorite bar — where I hope by now you’ve befriended a bartender — and see what bitters can do. After a classic old-fashioned (see how it compares to yours!), let your bartender riff: try a new base spirit, or a different type of bitters — or, more likely, both.
This is how new cocktails are born. From a familiar beginning, one ingredient is changed — leading to a ripple of effects, adjusted proportions and swapped-out ingredients that keep the end result in balance. Chat with your bartender and learn what moves they just made. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to head home and try an idea of your own.
Follow along as Boyce deep-dives into the world of cocktails here.