What are bitters and why is the bitters trend exaggerated?

Since the resurgence of the cocktail culture, one product category seems to be the pet-sleeve of any self-respecting bar and bartender: cocktail bitters.

Truth has to be told, I also believe, that before the reinvented craft cocktail, bars used far too rarely bitters - hell, a lot of bars even didn’t used them in classic ("bitter") cocktails like the Manhattan.

However like so many things, I do think, that the trend has been widely exaggerated.
Nowadays you do have an almost uncountable offer of aromatic bitters and orange bitters, but also quite a lot of unique bitters like: chocolate bitters, celery bitters, cherry, plum, lemon, lime, rhubarb, grapefruit, lavender, cucumber and so on.

To understand, if anyone needs these type of bitters, we do first of all have to understand the purpose of the bitters.
Let’s revisit the Old Fashioned Cocktail: a cocktail with sugar, spirit, bitters and some water (dilution).
If you drink whiskey on the rocks (and especially if you give it time to dilute), the aromas are becoming weaker. Adding little sugar, combat this - sugar is a natural taste enhancer... - but the aromas are still washed out - only the bitters properly refocus the drink - and an Old Fashioned should taste like the longer, easier_to_drink_version of its original spirit.

Bitters are in the bar analog to pepper in the culinary world. Most of the time, your dish should not taste like pepper, but the pepper should highlight the natural aromas of the food - in the case of the bar, most of the time, you should not taste the bitters, but they should highlight the facets of the base spirit of the drink. Like in the kitchen you have different varieties (in the kitchen you have black pepper and white pepper, which are used for different dishes): aromatic bitters (the best example would be Angostura Bitters) works perfectly with oak aged spirits. It is heavy on roots and baking spices - and that works well with the barrel-aging aromas. Then there is orange bitters, which are working usually well with unaged or shortaged spirits like gin (Angostura brought back their orange bitters and since it is available it pretty much dominated the market) - and there are creole bitters (Peychaud’s is one of the most popular examples) - while they are also often categorized to aromatic bitters, they are in my eyes more in between orange and aromatic bitters - and have quite a unique character - perfect for Sazeracs and other New Orleans recipes.

Why are bitters overrated?

The trend is overrated, because it puts the purpose of bitters ad absurdum - they anyway should not give any “taste” to a cocktail - they are just aroma enhancers. Adding specific bitters to a drink, is usually pretty pointless - and to influence properly the specific character of a drink, it would make far more sense to use extracts, syrups and the right base spirit.

No - I don't mean, that bartenders should stop to use bitters. But emphasizing on producing (or offering) special bitters make for sure no sense. Only the exaggeration of the ingredient is non-sense - not the ingredient itself.

The more ingredients are also used in a cocktail, the worse is the consistency of the drink. Using 2 or 3 bitters in a drink, raises massively the error rate - a fact, nobody seems to realize as well.

The verdict is:

Use bitters, but don't waste your time and your money on "diversifying" your selection of bitters: aromatic bitters, orange bitters and creole bitters are more than enough.


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