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All About Cocktail Bitters and How to Use Them in Cocktails

Here’s a primer on bitters and why it makes cocktail enthusiasts go weak in their knees

That there’s a world of innovation in the world of cocktails too is no news. Think quintessential Old-Fashioned, a classic cocktail, that is about as basic as a cocktail can get—whisky and brown sugar—enhanced with bitters. Bitters add a touch of crazy to cocktails and transform them with their flavour profile. Almost like the final sprinkle of salt or that secret magic ingredient that finishes a dish, bitters lend an unexpected depth and personality to a simple cocktail.


Delve a Little Deeper
Bitters are to cocktails what spices are to food. They are spirit-based concentrated flavours used to add a layer and depth to a cocktail or a drink. As a matter of fact, most store-bought bitters extensively use herbs and spices as flavouring agent in bitters. There are three crucial ingredients in bitters, the agent—high proof alcohol—to which a bittering agent and aromatic flavours are infused. High proof alcohol ensure maximum extraction from the flavours.


Also Read: 5 Whiskey Cocktails Even The Godfather Cannot Refuse

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Bittering agents can include barks and dried herbs with a base note of bitterness. It is on this base that other flavours flourish. “As the name suggests, the botanical bittering agents play the most important role in the spirit concentrate,” explains Raj Garry, mixologist, Tappa Mumbai. Flavours could be anything you fancy—citrus, coffee, berries—as long it has a unique flavour. Just a few drops of bitters in your drink can completely transform it.


While, bitters have been around since the 19th century, it is only recently that they have seen a resurgence with the revival of classical and neo-classical cocktails. Bartenders and mixologists are looking at newer ways and concoctions to use these flavour extracts that are usually doled out in drops and dashes. They are also making their own innovative variations—at Tappa, Garry has developed Butterfly Pea Flower and Paan bitters! There is also the spirit agent is the spirit of choice, which has to be a high proof neutral spirit.


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Going back in time
Bitters were originally used as medicinal tonics  to treat a vast variety of ailments. Doctors in the 1800s used to prescribe bitters (as well as tinctures and digestifs) to cure everything from a stomach bug to aching joints! During the Prohibition Era in the US, bitters didn’t fall under the prohibition and many added it to cheap swill and moonshine to make it more palatable. The habit stayed, and bitters made their way from medicines to become an integral part of cocktail culture, world over.


As a matter of fact, in the early days of cocktails, inclusion of bitters was imperative for a drink to be called a cocktail.


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Popular Bitters
Angostura
is the most recognised and go-to bitters brand in the world. Garry describes it as the “Grandfather of all bitters”. The name is derived from the eponymous Venezuelan city and it was invented by a German doctor, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert. It is known for its aromatic, warm and spicy flavours and is part of whisky-based cocktails such as Old-Fashioned and Manhattan..


Peychaud’s Bitters is another popular brand of bitters, created in Haiti in 1795, by an apothecary, Antoine Amédée Peychaud. Similar to the flavour profile of Angostura bitters but with a distinct dominance of anise and mint, Peychaud’s Bitters is commonly used in cocktails such as Sazerac and Vieux Carre.


Most restaurants will have both or one of these bitters. There are others who prefer concocting their own arsenal of bitters with unique flavours. At Tappa, Garry informs us, there are a total of 24 bitters and all are made in-house. “We always keep three bitters on the table where the guests are allowed to try them on in their drinks,” he adds.


Do It Yourself
Making bitters is not a complicated process. As long as the alcohol agent, flavours and bitters are at hand, you can infuse a portion yourself. The infusion period depends on the ingredients being used to make the bitters. It is ideal to taste a little every few days to ensure that it has enough flavour and not too much. You can concoct a variety of flavoured bitters based on pairing the flavouring agent and bittering agent well together.


Raj Garry shares his recipe for citrus basil bitters:
Ingredients
45 ml high proof vodka
5 gm of dried lemon rind
5 gm of orange rind
5 gm of neem or cinchona bark

Method
Mix all ingredients together in an airtight container.
Close the container and shake well.
Leave it in a cool dark place for 20 days, shaking the liquid once every day.
At the end of 20 days, strain and pour it in a small bottle.
Use in a vodka-based cocktail of your choice.


Images: Shutterstock.com

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