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Cocktail Bitters are concentrated flavour extracts used for “seasoning” or flavouring a drink (or food). When used in cocktails, they highlight existing flavours and introduce new ones as well.
1806 is when the world first saw the word “cocktail” published in an American publication. The basic recipe for what was described as a “cocktail” at the time called for any type of spirit, sugar, water and bitters. Simple!
Diverse styles of bitters became increasingly popular when making cocktails in the 19th century up until the dawn of prohibition in 1920. Unfortunately, many blooming bitters companies went out of business due to alcohol being made illegal.
Bitters are made using a solvent to extract flavours from botanicals. The most common solvent used is ethanol aka alcohol, but sometimes glycerine (glycerol) is used as well. At Top Shelf Distillers, only high proof neutral spirit is used to extract flavours to create bitters. The higher the alcohol content the more extraction power the spirit has.
The botanicals used to create bitters depends on the type of bitters one is looking to make. You can find single ingredient bitters which are very rare, but most are composed of multiple ingredients which give them more complexity and personality.
Aromatic bitters tend to use baking spice flavours and aromas such as cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, and cloves to name a few. They work wonderfully with dark spirits such as rums and whisk(e)ys or any barrel aged spirit. Fruity and sweeter bitters use fresh or dried fruit as the primary ingredient and are naturally sweetened by the fruit. Rarely is sugar added to the blend. Orange is a very popular and common flavour for bitters and usually contains a mixture of fruit as well as spices. A bittering agent is always found in the formula to make bitters. These can come in the form of exotic plants, roots, and even some types of tree bark. These add a bitter element to the concoction, which is why bitters are called what they are called. Common types of bittering agents can include: dandelion, wormwood, gentian, angelica, and artichoke leaf to name a few.
Bitters help flavours blend in a cocktail, and to be honest, we’re not exactly sure how. They seem to mask the more volatile flavours of liquids, the ones on the forefront, and seem to pull forward the more subtle nuanced flavours that are usually not as noticeable. Before bitters were used in cocktails as a seasoning ingredient, they had another application: medicine.
Traditionally, bitters were used as medicines. Bitter plants were used in the form of tinctures/bitters to treat ailments such as stomach pains caused by indigestion. Bitter herbs are known to promote healthy digestion and they can also help ease nausea, heartburn, cramping, and headaches. Centuries ago, bitters used to be sold and marketed as miracle tonics and life prolonging elixirs.
Quinine, for example, an alkaloid found in the bark of the cinchona tree, has been used for centuries to prevent malaria. You might recognise this bittering agent as the flavour of tonic water. Cinchona is also often used in the making of certain types of cocktail bitters.
We can't exactly pinpoint when bitters became popular for cocktail use, but it is believed that people had the habit of adding them to alcohol to make the bitters easier to take down when prescribed as a medicine.
The Difference Between A Tincture And Bitters
Bitters are exclusively bitter. They're used in dashes and small doses only, to season cocktails and add depth. Tinctures are solutions made in whichever flavour profile you choose: bitter, sweet, spicy. They're used in varying amounts to adjust the balance and flavour of a cocktail. These terms are often used interchangeably although they shouldn’t be.
When we think about bitters, we associate it with cocktail making, and rightfully so since that is its most common application. However, bitters can also be used while cooking and baking. Since bitters are a form of flavour extract, they have their place in the culinary world as well. It’s simply a matter of finding a flavour profile that compliments the dish or pastry you intend on making. Here are a few examples of how bitters could be used in the kitchen. Remember that these are merely suggestions and your imagination really is the limit when coming up with flavours to compliment your foods using bitters.
Add a few dashes of your choice flavour of bitters to whipped cream to create fun flavoured whips.
Meats and soups
Aromatic bitters and spiced bitters are delicious in meat marinades as well as soups. Use bitters to add certain exotic flavours and keep things interesting in the kitchen. Making a stir fry or some pad thai? Why not try a few dashes of lemongrass bitters in your recipe.
Back of hand: put 1-2 drops on the back side of your hand. Give it a smell and analyse the aroma. Now, then give it a slurp. This will give you a general idea of the main flavour components of the bitters you are trying. This will give you a good idea of how bitter it is, the aromatics and the dominant flavours.
Diluted (in soda water): bitters are rarely used by themselves. They are most often diluted in larger volumes of liquids. To give you a broader perspective of how the few drops of bitters’ flavour will change when diluted, add a few drops in some soda water. The neutral flavour of the water will give you a decent indicator of how the bitters will taste when diluted. It will be less bitter and the flavours will be more prominent and discoverable. You should be able to taste layers of flavours that were not present when testing the bitters in its concentrated, non diluted form.
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