Matthew Kelly / Supercall

The Insane New Way Bars Are Using Bitters

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If you’ve ever ordered an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, you’ve no doubt seen your bartender dash a minute helping of Angostura bitters into the glass. That little bottle, with its oversized label and bold yellow cap, is a bar staple, and a little goes a long way. At 45 percent ABV, the aromatic bitters are so intensely flavored that they’re considered “non potable” in any quantity greater than a few dashes.

But that’s not always true.

It turns out that a large measure of the gentian-flavored bitters also goes a long way in making a cocktail trendy—and delicious. Enter the Trinidad Sour.

In 2009, bartender extraordinaire Giuseppe González, then head bartender of Clover Club and now owner of Suffolk Arms, entered the sour (made with a hefty 1.5 ounces of Angostura bitters, supported by orgeat, lemon juice and a dash of rye) into a cocktail competition. He lost, but, ironically, his drink has outlasted the winning drink.

The Trinidad Sour still pops up on cocktail menus to this day, including the menu at Hay Merchant in Houston, as well as Split-Rail in Chicago, where bartender Michelle Szot created a nut-free version, the South Floral Park (below), using an oat orgeat.

Courtesy of Split-Rail

“It's definitely a little challenging to work with bitters as the primary spirit in a cocktail, but that's why it's fun—you get to create something a bit outside the box,” says Szot. “The concentrated flavor of the bitters is really well rounded out by the creaminess of the oat-geat, while still allowing the Angostura to maintain its integrity.”

Now, armed with bottles of aromatic bitters, bartenders across the country are driving the wonderfully weird trend forward, thanks, at least in part, to González’s misfit sour. Though pouring 1.5 ounces of any kind of aromatic bitters into a cocktail shaker sounds a bit crazy—even by a craft bartender’s standards—the finished concoctions are typically pretty tame, always considering balance above all else.

“It’s just important to put them up against other big, bold flavors and ingredients. Other bitters, like amari and aperitifs, also work well to almost cancel each other out,” says Jim Kearns, beverage director and managing partner of New York’s The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley. When he was developing recipes for Play (now closed) at the Museum of Sex, he puzzled together his own Angostura-based drink, counterbalancing the bitter flavor with sweet grenadine, tart lemon, aquavit and rye whiskey. “It is pretty challenging, but it’s not impossible,” he says. “The flavors work together, because the drink is basically a tyrant party—everything in it is a huge, bold flavor.”

Courtesy of SoBou

The same principle applies to Bolivar's Nog (pictured above; Angostura bitters, rum, Rougaroux 13 Pennies, brown sugar syrup, whole egg, cream, milk, orange bitters) at SoBou in New Orleans. Created by bar chef Laura Bellucci, the drink is as rich as it is interesting.

“I balance the bitters in bitters-based cocktails with other potent ingredients like cream or fruit purées,” says Bellucci. “It's challenging because it initially throws the cocktail off balance, but it's awesome because it packs a ton of flavor and creates weirder flavor profiles, which is what I am usually looking for.”

You’re bound to get a “weird” flavor profile anytime there’s over an ounce of bitters in a cocktail—and that’s especially true when bartenders stray from classic bitters like Angostura and opt for funkier options. Inspired by The Bitter Truth’s line of largely off-the-wall offerings, bartender Jamie Jennings of Hodges Bend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, created the Creole Colada using the brand’s fruity, floral and spicy Creole Bitters.

The drink, as the name would imply, is a riff on the tropical Piña Colada, made with rum, pineapple juice and cream of coconut—but it also throws a few curveballs. For one, the drink packs in a full ounce of Creole Bitters, as well as a slightly smaller measure of Cognac, all topped off with a mint sprig and grapefruit peel for garnish. While these addenda may seem minor, they give the classic Colada a whole new coral-hued lease on life, with, Jennings says, a nod to The Big Easy.

“In order to balance the intense flavors of bitters, an additional amount of sweetener is typically required,” says Jennings. “Additional flavoring, such as juices, or botanicals, help balance the bitters.

Not long before the Creole Colada appeared on its menu, Hodges Bend featured a cocktail called the Lakeside, which balances an ounce of vegetal celery bitters with equal parts gin, lemon juice and simple syrup, plus a pinch of salt (recipe below). And Jennings is already working out her next bitters balancing act in the form of a wintery flip made with The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters, which lean a little closer to the flavor profile found in the classic Angostura.

“The cinnamon and clove notes of the bitters pair well with cinnamon syrup, and the entire egg rounds out the drink,” says Jennings. Finally, a cocktail trend that turns expectation on its head and works as beautifully with sours as it does with flips—seasons be damned.

Want to make your very own bitters-based cocktail? Try this celery-flecked take on a classic sour formula.

Matthew Kelly / Supercall

The Essentials

Celery Bitters
Gin
Lemon Juice

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