It seems like every time I turn around there is a new artisan product: artisan cheese, artisan beer, artisan chocolate, even artisan water (really, Whole Foods, with your asparagus water?). One of the most intriguing artisanal products I’ve come across in the past several years has been craft bitters.
Back in the days of our parents’ cocktail parties, there was only good old Angostura, but now there are thousands of different craft bitters being made around the world. Bitters started out as medicinal—usually a mixture of spices, roots, bark, seeds, flowers, and fruit peels infused into alcohol. They were used as a digestive aid or as medicine, but eventually were added, by the dash, as a flavoring for cocktails. According to Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas, bitters gained popularity in Colonial America, although there is evidence they were being used in cocktails in England in the early 1700s. The complexity bitters add to a drink is what separates an average cocktail from an inspired work of sipable art—the one where you keep taking little slurps trying to discern all the different layers of flavor that are making your mouth sing, and you feel absolutely justified spending $16 on the dang thing.
When I first started noticing this onslaught of bitters, I wanted to try them all…lavender, tangerine, cardamom, celery…but soon there were so many, even my fetishy delight at all the little apothecary bottles was replaced with an overwhelming sense of panic: How will I track down all the other special ingredients in these recipes? Do I know enough people who will come over and try these varied and complicated drinks? Do I really need a muddler? Will I need to start dressing in only pre-prohibition clothing and seek out friends with handlebar mustaches? Dizzy with all these quandaries, I gave up and stuck to my go-to bitter-infused cocktail—the dependably delicious Manhattan—put on some Cab Calloway and called it a day.
Recently, I read a blurb in a magazine about bitters from a company called Cocktail Punk, whose goal is to “create compelling accents for the modern cocktail…simple yet devious. They are perfect in classic cocktails but were really designed for the cocktails that haven’t been invented yet.” I liked their renegade spirit and their chubby dropper bottles with their simple labels—elegant, but with a Vivienne Westwood snark. I promptly ordered*:
CHERRY BITTERS – A cherry bomb, targeted directly at (your) Manhattan. Vibrant cherry, a hint of vanilla, and subtle spice complements the oak flavors in dark spirits, but the flavor profile is simple enough to use wherever a touch of cherry is needed. You’ll never need a barspoon of syrup from the Luxardo jar again.
SMOKED ORANGE BITTERS – Smoked Orange is the new black. Orange zest is cold-smoked with alderwood, and the result is smoky but not overly intense; a finishing touch of mint adds interest. Built for and absolutely killer in tequila and mezcal drinks, but there are also unexpected and wonderful effects in combination with darker spirits.
MORNING GRAPEFRUIT BITTERS – Zesty grapefruit flavors, but with a pronounced aromatic backbone and a touch of juniper. Inspired by an eccentric uncle who enjoyed the old Southern habit of a breakfast grapefruit half with sugar and bitters added. A seasonal bitters made only in peak grapefruit season.
I received the Cocktail Punk bitters in the mail, happily opening the box to reveal my prize. I quickly got to work on making a Manhattan with the Cherry bitters. They were right, I didn’t need any Luxardo syrup to achieve a perfectly balanced cherry kick. I did, however, enjoy a few Luxardo cherries thrown in along with a twist of orange. Heaven. I tried the Smoked Orange bitters in an Aperol Sour and received a satisfying amount of praise from Kirsten and Aaron (Aperol is an Italian bitter orange aperitivo similar to Campari). I will be making these on the regular. Finally, I tried the Morning Grapefruit bitters in a simple Greyhound. I quote the first Sharknado when I say, “’Nuff said!”
I’m looking forward to inventing some of my own cocktails using Cocktail Punk’s bitters. And I might trade in the Cab Calloway for some Clash or Fear. I still don’t have any friends with handlebar mustaches, but I have plenty of friends who like punk, so I’m not bitter.
¾ oz sweet vermouth
2 ½ oz bourbon
few dashes of Cocktail Punk Cherry bitters
Several Luxardo cherries
1 twist of orange peel
Place cherries in a chilled cocktail glass. Stir together vermouth, bourbon and bitters with ice in a mixing glass until cold, trying not to bruise the spirits. Strain into cocktail glass. Rub edge of the orange peel over rim and twist over the drink to release the oils, discard. Makes 1 drink.
1 ¾ oz Aperol
¾ oz lemon juice
¼ oz simple syrup (recipe below)
few dashes Cocktail Punk Smoked Orange bitters
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
Simmer sugar and water in a saucepan until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool. Makes about 1 cup.
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add all ingredients and shake until cold. Strain into a cocktail glass. Makes 1 drink.
1 ½ oz gin (or vodka)
5 oz freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
few dashes Cocktail Punk Morning Grapefruit bitters
1 twist of grapefruit peel
Pour ingredients into a highball glass filled with ice and stir to combine ingredients. Garnish with a twist of grapefruit peel. Makes 1 drink.
Stuff Worthy Of Our Notice™ in this post:
The book Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Aperol can be found at BevMo and most liquor stores. You can purchase Luxardo cherries from Williams-Sonoma and Amazon.
*Descriptions of bitters from the Cocktail Punk website.