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Bitters. What the heck are they & how do I use them?

The pill-sized bottles that everyone sees on a bar.
But what are they exactly?

The best way to explain the functionality of bitters in bartending is to talk about the functionality of spices in cooking.

There are spices used for adding flavour, and there are spices used for pulling flavours together.

Let’s take one of my favourite spices, cinnamon.
Adding cinnamon to an apple-pie is really what gives it it’s trademark flavour. Which would allow someone to say “this apple pie tastes like cinnamon.”

Now let’s take another spice...or rather, a pair of spices:
Salt and Pepper.

Salt and pepper are added to virtually everything and anything but we almost never say something tastes like salt & pepper. The reason? Well salt is an easy one.

Our bodies need salt, the world is full of salt, and aside from being the main ingredient to all our favourite savoury snacks (seriously check the sodium on those potato chips), salt is a flavour enhancer. Why?

Well think of salt as a sponge. Ironically enough to this article, salt is a sponge the sucks out bitter flavours and spits of sweet, spicy, and umami flavours in your favourite dishes.

Why don’t we like bitter flavour? We’ll get to that.

Pepper on the other hand doesn’t too much to our food on a molecular level. It just simply adds spice & balance to the force of food and gives truth to the “rule of two” for all your Star Wars geeks out there.

Together salt and pepper bind the best flavours of foods together.

Now onto bitters.

Bitters are made by steeping/macerating a bittering agent (such as burdock root) in a base of high-proof alcohol, with other herbs and spices.

“But I don’t like bitter things!”
Well, you’re not alone.

In short, people don’t like the taste of bitter because bitters use to be used to kill people. That’s right, Joffrey on Game of Thrones was given a lethal dose of Angostura. I joke.

Bitters are not poison, but back in the day poison was generally bitter flavoured. Our bodies being the amazing things they are, evolved to gag at the taste of bitter as a defense mechanism to defend against poison. Now us bartenders (the guys dosing your drink with everything you consume) are trying to reverse that evolution.

Evil Plot? I hope not.

Death & Co. (great bar-book, go buy it) categorizes bitters in two ways that I tend to follow. There are bitters for adding flavour (lifting bitters), and there are bitters for pulling flavours together (binding bitters).

Lifting Bitters are much like the cinnamon in our apple-pie. There job is to add a flavour to a cocktail that is noticeable enough to taste.

This could mean adding espresso bitters to a martini, coffee & smoke bitters to an old-fashioned, or hell - thanks to the great folks at Dillon's Distillery -  you can even buy “Apple-Pie Bitters” (and I’ll be the first to tell you, they’re friggen fantastic and yes they do make drinks taste like apple pie).

The other kind of bitters is Binding Bitters.
What’s a binding bitter you say? Let’s go back to salt & pepper.

Salt and pepper enhance the flavour of a dish, yeah?

Binding bitters are the salt & pepper of a cocktail, and they contain a group of flavours to help pull the drink together.

The most common types of binding bitters are Orange Bitters & Angostura Bitters.

Orange bitters generally contain orange peel, cardamom, caraway, & sugar (thanks Wikipedia).

Angostura bitters won’t tell you what they contain because they’re the most coveted bitters in the gosh-darn universe. Seriously, only five living people know the recipe (No, sadly I’m not one of them).

The flavours in these bitters are put there because, like salt & pepper, they go with just about anything. They hit the cocktail like that guy at the party who just knows everybody. They shake hands and introduce different flavours to each other and make the party that is your cocktail awesome, exciting, and ready to have fun.  

“GREAT! Now I want to buy some bitters and get my bar-skillz going! What molecular store do I have to trek to so I can buy these?”

Thankfully for you there is no apothecary needed, because in the eyes of the Canadian government bitters are considered a food.

That’s right people! Because bitters have roots in medicinal history, despite their 50% alcohol, they are still considered a food! Yay for Canada!

Angostura can be found on most any grocery store shelf, and the others can be found at different cocktail retailers scattered across the cool parts of your town.  

I highly recommend shopping online at BYOB Cocktail Emporium  for some crazy bitters & gadgets, and of course the increasingly famous Dillon's – Small Batch Distillers for whatever crazy concoction they are coming up with next.

Want to learn how to make bitters at home?
We’ll get there young padawans.
Until then…

Amy & Zac Kvas


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