Does anyone remember a simpler time, 10 or 15 years ago, when hardly anyone kicked if you forgot bark bitters in a Manhattan, and when orange bitters in a Martini was just a bizarre notion? The joke among bartenders was that you'd pay off your mortgage before you went through a bottle of bitters (which was likely Angostura, the lone brand your liquor store carried).
Today, no self-respecting cocktail crafter nor liquor supplier would think of limping along with such narrow choices. The range of flavors offered by these biting tinctures has swelled. Furthermore, self-styled bar chefs have revived the concept of "house-made bitters." And it's come to the point where enthusiasts are making them in their home kitchens.
Bitters are astringent botanical concentrations made up of a variety of herbs, roots, spices, flowers and fruit, often with closely guarded recipes of some complexity. They not only add flavor to an Old Fashioned, but they also balance sweetness in a Manhattan. When floated on the meringue of a Pisco Sour, they provide aroma.
But despite their charms, you'd be hard-pressed to imbibe them in more than tiny doses. The government classifies bitters as nonpotable alcohol. (In fact, the authorities rejected an early version of Regan's orange bitters as being too palatable.)
Despite their current vogue, bitters are not new at all. They have served as curatives and digestives for centuries. In the 1800s, they were promoted from the medicine cabinet to the bar kit. When the term "cocktail" was first defined in print, some two centuries ago, it was alternately described as a "bittered sling." Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs and Manhattans were unthinkable without them, and bartenders such as the celebrated Jerry Thomas had their own recipes.
During Prohibition, bitters disappeared as bootleggers concentrated on larger-volume potables. (Bitters are typically packaged in bottles of 4 ounces). A few examples staggered through by avoiding the law: Angostura hails from Trinidad and Fee Brothers is made without alcohol.
After the Noble Experiment, many had forgotten about the importance of bitters. Then came the bars where speed-mixing was revered above recipe (you won't see Tom Cruise juggle a bottle of bitters in the movie Cocktail). Jungle-juice jockeys had neither the time nor the inclination to nuance their saccharine quaffs with balancing flavors.
Nevertheless, when the classic cocktail was most recently revived, the dedicated students of drink recognized that those few drops of bitters were integral to most heritage recipes. Angostura, Fee and Peychaud's (the sine qua non of the Sazerac) saw upturns.
Then a spate of newcomers widened the mixing field with flavors that went far beyond the usual types of bark and fruit bitters. Now you can also inform your drink with such notions as maple (Urban Moonshine), baked apple (Bar Keep), cacao (Bittermens), celery (Berg & Hauck's), coffee (Master of Malt), Memphis barbecue (Bitter End), tangerine (Scrappy's), cherry bark (Bittercube), cinnamon (5 by 5) and cucumber (The Bitter Truth). That last manufacturer even packages a Traveler's Set of five separate flavors in miniature bottles (presumably in case of mixological emergencies on the road). They cover most of the major categories, with roots, bark, fruit and vegetable, as well as the aforementioned Jerry Thomas recipe.
Not to be left in the dust, hip bartenders started a movement for house-made bitters that's spread across the country. At Providence, on Melrose Place in Los Angeles, jalapeño bitters are used to make the Angry Angelino, with tequila, Fernet Branca, ginger and lime. At New York's Harding's, you can have an Old Fashioned with bitters made from lavender, orange peel and bay leaf. The Broken Shaker, in Miami Beach, mixes the Mel's Gibson with gin, onion-infused vermouth and rosemary-and-lemon bitters.
Increasingly, amateur enthusiasts are on the vanguard, making their own bitters at home. It's not as arcane a pursuit as it sounds. Jovial King and Guido Masé have written a guide called DIY Bitters: Reviving the Forgotten Flavor—A Guide to Making Your Own Bitters (Fair Winds; $24.99). And they know their stuff: The authors are founders of Urban Moonshine, which itself markets a half dozen organic bitters with a view toward homeopathy. From allspice to wormwood to bacon, the book is full of interesting suggestions. You'll come away with ideas for concocting your own recipe and specific guidelines for handling each ingredient.
The process itself isn't very difficult. In fact, it is very similar to making vodka infusions, except that the flavors are more concentrated (sometimes steeping for several weeks) and complex, and the recipes are sometimes bottled at forbidding strength (as much as 95 percent alcohol). The easy way is to pick a bunch of ingredients and put them together before starting the process. But the authors would have you make separate tinctures of each and mix the resulting liquids at the end.
For chamomile bitters, start by combining 2 ounces of chopped, dried chamomile flowers in a mason jar with 12 ounces of 150 proof alcohol. Then steep the mixture in a cool, dark place for two weeks. At the same time, create separate tinctures of dandelion root, burdock, yellow dock and ginger root. That way you can accurately measure quantities that range from 4 ounces to a teaspoon in order to make the final blend. The potion should then be funneled into an amber bottle with an eyedropper closure to portion out small amounts.
Now take a moment to admire your handiwork before shaking a few drops into a Gin Fizz, which, after all, is the final intention.
Jack Bettridge is senior features editor of Cigar Aficionado.