Are bitters the next big thing?
Depending upon whom you ask, the answer may be: Bitters already are the next big thing. Jabe Amato, head bartender at Bistango Restaurant in Irving, California, says he can only speculate why bitters are suddenly becoming so popular, but suggests it's most likely due to TV shows like Mad Men, which have triggered an interest not only in old school fashion, but also in old school cocktails. Many of these feature bitters such as Peychaud's, which dates to the early 19th century, and Angostura, which was named for and developed in Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar), Venezuela in 1824 by a German surgeon in Bolívar's army.
Though liquor stores have long-stocked a basic range of bitters—orange and lemon, for example-- more professional bartenders and mixologists are beginning to make their own small-batch bitters. Many of them are using local, seasonal ingredients, stocking their bars with custom-created flavors like cinnamon, chipotle, and pumpkin, or even, in the case of Jen Queen (right), principal bartender at San Diego's Saltbox Dining and Drinking, sea urchin.
But maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves.
What are bitters, anyway?
“Bitters are like the salt of the cocktail world,” says Mark Sexauer, author of the book Aphrodisiacs with a Twist ; they are used sparingly and purposefully to add complexity and flavor to a drink. To understand what bitters are, though, you first have to know what a tincture is: an infusion of one ingredient, such as cloves, into a high proof spirit; rum is a popular choice. Bitters are made by combining multiple tinctures.
If you want to understand what bitters add to a cocktail, Sexauer recommends that you make two classic Manhattans: one with two dashes of bitters and one without bitters. “Sip each one and experience the extreme difference," he said. “They are two completely different drinks.”
Next, how you can make bitters at home...