Bitters: Behind the bar or at the stove
A selection of the bitters available at Kegworks on Military Rd. in Tonawanda
Every good barman knows that bitters are to cocktails what salt and pepper is to food. Employed to add depth and complexity of flavor to mixed drinks, bitters are a necessary component to any proper bar. Peychaud's, which come from New Orleans, may be the most well known. Invented in 1838, they are an excellent standard and no bar is complete without them. The recipe for Angostura bitters, another classic, was developed in Trinidad and Tobago in 1824. Today Angostura bitters are not only used to season cocktails, but when combined with soda provide an age-old digestive. However, the modern cocktail pantry can (and should) extend well beyond these two standards, embracing a variety of modern bitters with unique flavor profiles such as black walnut and Aztec chocolate.
Fee Brothers, a bitters maker located just east of Buffalo in Rochester, offers a wide range of products. A simple sazerac (a rye-based cocktail made of sugar, bitters, and absinthe) gains a light citrus note when standard cocktail bitters are augmented with Fee Brothers West Indian Orange bitters and an orange rind garnish. I love their black walnut bitters in a rye Manhattan with Punt e Mes and Carpano Antica vermouths.
In addition to a marketplace recently flooded with a variety of interestingly flavored bitters, keep in mind that they are also a simple concoction that can be made at home. Essentially, cocktail bitters are a highly concentrated alcoholic solution that is flavored to suit one's tastes. Bittering agents can be citrus zest, roots, branches, or seeds—the flavoring is largely up to you. I have found making cocktail bitters at home to be quite simple. The base for most bitters is grain alcohol that is then infused with flavors and bittering agents and allowed to sit in a dark corner until it develops flavor. Most are then diluted, seasoned with sugar, and strained. High-proof bourbon or other alcohol can also be used.
Lately I've been wandering around outside, cutting trees, smelling branches. I love the smell of the spruce trees. Their long green needles remind me of rosemary. I recall a conversation with my sister, where she begged me to take some of the rosemary from her plentiful garden. I found the herb too aggressive for my liking in traditional applications, but roasting some beef and basting it with her rosemary and garlic seemed like a nice dinner at home. So, thinking of that look and the vaguely similar fragrance, I grabbed a piece of the spruce branch and brought it home. I blanched only the needles, not the branch, for three minutes and then shocked them in ice water. With enough grapeseed oil to cover, I pureed it in a high-speed blender for ten minutes or so, producing a green oil that smelled of Christmas. Turning the oven to a high temperature and scrubbing baby carrots, my mind was racing with ideas. I needed something somewhat sweet, bitter, and acidic. What could I use? A slow mental return to my home bar brought orange bitters to mind. It was the perfect complement to the roasted carrot all along. A simple vinaigrette made with orange bitters, juice, and spruce oil started me on a journey that I have yet to end. The usefulness of bitters in the savory kitchen is not unlike their use at the bar—they can season sauces just as they do cocktails. Deglazing pans, added to a hot plate in order to perfume a dish just as it arrives at the table—bitters add je ne sais qua.
When my mind starts moving, it quickly turns down many alleys. With leftover spruce needles, I could make cocktail bitters with a bit of orange zest, licorice root, wormwood, and cardamom. And because making bitters at home and using them in savory cooking applications isn't where my mind stops, I moved on to thinking about aging. Barrel aging can make a whiskey more nuanced and gentler. Aging wines produces a similar effect. Some of my industry friends barrel age cocktails recreationally at home with splendid results, so why not bitters? But since most barrels have a capacity of 5-10 liters and I was producing less than 1 liter of esoteric bitters, this presented a complication. But I learned long ago that when you can't bring something to your goal, you bring the goal to something. The solution was found in simply toasting a piece of bourbon barrel, breaking it up for more surface area, and steeping that in my bitters. It rendered wonderful results.
I know the way I think may not be how most minds work. But with an open mind and a curious palate, a home pantry can be expanded exponentially, including the use of bitters, which can provide a new frontier of flavor.
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Edward Forster is a professional chef living and working in WNY.