Bitter Banter

The cocktail world collides with custom tinctures.

WHILE DOING RESEARCH for a story in the last issue of HILuxury, one of the first master mixologists to ever hold that title said to me: “Bitters are like the salt and pepper of the cocktail world.”

What Tony Abou-Ganim couldn’t have known was that it sent me down an avenue which resulted in calls to Milwaukee, Seattle, Brooklyn and Munich, Germany. It turns out—which Abou-Ganim was already well aware of—that our fine nation is in the early stages of bitters renaissance.

“Before prohibition, there were recipes from all over the world for bitters. Most bartenders had their own homemade concoctions,” says Nick Kosevitch, maker of Bittercube bitters, based in Wisconsin. He and his partner Ira Koplowitz agree that after prohibition ended, the momentum bitters initially had completely ceased, as focus shifted to bringing new types of alcohol to market. “We’re just getting back to where things left off,” Kosevitch adds.

What exactly are bitters, anyway? And why should you care? There’s very good reason, in fact. For one, according to Hawai‘i’s most famous mixologist (and NYC bar and lounge owner) Julie Reiner, “Bitters are the glue that hold many a cocktail together. A Manhattan or Old Fashioned without Angostura or Pechauds would be nothing. Nothing.”

Bitters began as tonics for the stomach. They were born in the apothecary; a mixing and matching of botanicals, boiled down and reduced to tinctures and oils, eventually blended with high-test alcohol for preservation means, only.

Somewhere along the line, someone added a palatable flavoring, and noticed that in addition to boosting the depth of flavor of a cocktail, it also eased the gastrointestinal tract. A win-win!

One drink slinger that has put a lot of time into the crafting and packaging of bitters is Stephan Berg, maker of The Bitter Truth line. Based outside of Munich, Germany, Berg was a veteran bartender that had seen literally hundreds of ports of call—he worked on a cruise ship. After using Angostura exhaustively, he began mixing his own batches.

In 2006 he made his way to the finals of a contest where he met Alex Hauck—an equally enthusiastic maker of bitters. They teamed up, collaborating on nearly dozen flavors, and launched The Bitter Truth to a very receptive American market that was on the heels of the farm-to-table culinary movement. The two went hand-in-hand.

After hand bottling 25,000 bottles, The Bitter Truth partnered with an Austrian company to meet growing demands; the trend seemed to be on an upswing.

San Francisco’s Cantina bar owner, drinks consultant and Bombay Sapphire brand ambassador Duggan McDonnell is equally as enthused about the surge of newly packaged and available bitters.

“Bitters in cocktails is a necessity,” McDonnell says, who would formerly mix his own large batches of two different bitters for use at Cantina, and now finds pleasure in “letting the experts” craft for him. “It helps the cocktail understand what it’s doing.”

Kosevitch and Koplowitz (from Bittercube) are also on-the-ground drink slingers who each own a handful of drinking establishments, between Minneapolis, Madison and Milwaukee.

“We wanted a bigger palate from which to paint from,” says Koplowitz, noting that Bittercube uses all natural product, drawn from “hundreds” of spices they use for mixing and matching. “We price ourselves on our bitters being very versatile. You can make six different variations of the gimlet with them, and then add it do a vinaigrette or in cookie dough.”

Bittercube’s offerings have names like “Blackstrap” (rich in cinnamon and smoke), “Jamaican #1″/”Jamaican #2” (the first heavy in allspice, clove and black pepper; the latter hints with grapefruit, ginger and hibiscus), and “Bolivar” (also big on cinnamon but bolstered with jasmine and chamomile florals, ideal as a champagne or brandy additive)

One similarity between all the makers and mixologists we chatted with is their references to Peychauds and Angostura bitters.

“My advice to people, since it’s still a little early in the trend of new bitters and the wonderful flavors that are just coming to market, is to understand Peychaud’s and Angostura before you delve deep. Get the basics—most of the funky stuff that’s being made isn’t meant for the home bar. A bartender with a bolstered spice rack who can create endless possibilities, that’s different.”

Reiner also had a fabulous suggestion—one that certainly would have saved me some grimaces and winces as I tasted my way through a dozen different bitters during R&D for this story: She suggests putting a single drop of bitters in your hand, rubbing them together, and then smelling it.

“Bitters are all about the roots, the spices, the herbs involved. It’s more sensory than just taste. After that, it’s all trial and error,” she adds, pointing to her favorite Tiki Bitters from Bittermans. She makes a “Bitter Wench” cocktail that combines rum and Bulleit whiskey with raw sugar syrup. The Tiki Bitters adds a cinnamon and allspice punch that brings the whole libation home.

Both Reiner and McDonnell alluded to a pending release (at time of press) by the “King of Cocktails” Dale DeGroff: A pimento bitters he hand-blended himself.

Here at home, Kaimuki’s Salt bar manager Julian Walstrom may be the most bitters savvy on island. In his words, he sees two types of cocktails—the classics followed by fruit-based cocktails.

“I try and bridge the two—which is sort of tiki style—by making spirit-based cocktails and adding citrus and bitters, which is unique,” Walstrom shares. He too has been tipping Angostura and Peychaud’s for some time, and is now playing with The Bitter Truth’s grapefruit bitters (in a lovely Hemingway Daiquiri) as well as their chocolate-mole bitters (the punchy Oaxacan Negroni).

Walstrom also mentions a Seattle company called Scrappy’s that makes a fine celery bitters, which he pairs with many a gin drink.

Seated in front of an array of glasses, some seltzer water, perfectly square (and clear) ice cubes, a handful of tasty spirits (tequila, rum, vodka and whiskey), I stare down a “Travel Pack” of Bitter Truth tinctures that includes Grapefruit, Creole, Chocolate and one titled Jerry Thomas, named after the most famous bartender (and author/ bon vivant) of the 19th century. Berg tells me that some of the ingredients he would mix into his bitters have been banned—like Virginia snake root—which of course, intrigues me all the more.

Indeed, the possibilities are endless.

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