The Bitter Truth – Boulder Weekly

A dash here, a drop there, all in the name of flavor. Bitters are a common ingredient in cocktails, but what are all these different varieties actually for?

“All good cocktails have balance,” says Wes Isbutt, owner of Longmont’s West Side Tavern. “The amaros, the cordials, those varieties of flavors that we use in cocktails, we balance them with citrus and we balance them with bitters.”

Take a classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned. Bitters bring out the depth of something that might otherwise become too sweet. Old Fashioneds usually call for a classic aromatic bitter like Angostura, bringing out some of the cherry and citrus layers to lift them through the power of bourbon.

“Bitters are essential to a cocktail,” says Isbutt. “It’s essential in balance, but it’s also essential in making an interesting cocktail versus a boring one.”

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get to the bitter truth, or rather the truth about bitters. Similar to an herbal tincture, bitters are made by steeping herbs in high-strength alcohol for an extended period of time, often combined with fruit and some sort of sweetener to bind it all together.

Flavors range from rhubarb and cherry to grapefruit, walnut, and coffee, usually married to a list of herbs that aren’t out of place at an apothecary. Bitters need to be, well, bitter, so some sort of agent needs to be added, usually gentian root or various barks. The whole process takes a few weeks, maybe longer if the alcohol is less alcoholic, but the end result can be wonderful if you have the recipe dialed in.

The tincture as a medicinal supplement has roots dating back to the 1700s, according to Brad Thomas Parsons’ Bitters. Often touted as a panacea, bitters might as well be snake oil. The US Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which, among other things, required producers of bitters to clearly label ingredients.

“This immediately affected patent medicine bitters of the snake oil type, which were effectively shunned from the market, and thus opened the playing field for more reputable brands such as Abbott’s, Boker’s and Angostura, which had been adopted behind the bar,” Parsons writes in his book.

There is some merit to the sweet restorative properties of bitters. This writer swears by club soda and a few heavy dashes of bitters to calm indigestion, but I wouldn’t necessarily go any further than that.

Few bartenders worthy of their jiggers and bar spoons could curate a cocktail program without at least several varieties of bitters. Going back to the Old Fashioned, a change in bitters can change the whole profile of a cocktail. Isbutt opts to add equal parts nut and chocolate bitters rather than a traditional aromatic like Angostura. The result is something smoother, showcasing the oaks and caramel of the whiskey on the citrus nose.

For a fascinating variety of bitters, look no further than Boulder’s Cocktail Punk. Led by Josh Laguna, Cocktail Punk’s variety of small batch bitters run the gamut of flavors.

Laguna’s eagerness to delve into the world of bitters is palpable as he delves into the intricacies and complexities. Cocktail Punk creates its own take on the classics – aromatic, orange and grapefruit – but the strains Laguna is really excited for are a little off.

“They’re like the spice cabinet of the cocktail world,” says Laguna. “It’s what you add to give a special touch to a cocktail. Just the bitter aspect, like sweet or umami, is one of the main tasting profiles.

American Single Malt bitters are barrel-aged, designed specifically for whiskey cocktails, while Alpino Cocktail bitters use sage and mint to mimic the profiles of a mountain amaro. Laguna pays homage to Colorado with local cherries, peaches and lavender in other varietals.

With a dozen individual bitters, Cocktail Punk aims to craft bitters that are suitable for classic cocktails while serving bartenders looking to develop their creative skills. Laguna is not one to rest, with several flavors in the works, including a ginger bitters that shows promise as a replacement for Angostura in a classic rye cocktail like the Vieux Carré.

Classic bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s will always have a place behind a bar, but creative bartenders need a larger spice cabinet. Bitters makers like Laguna will continue to come up with apothecary wonders, and bartenders like Isbutt will find new and weird ways to implement them into their libations.

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Freeda S. Scott