Bitter sweet symphony

Ask many people what they think of bitterness as a flavour, and they would say it’s a fault in their drink, something to avoid. But most top bartenders are now using bitter mixers or drops in their cocktails to add an extra level of complexity, and some of the new bitter products are highly prized. Legendary bartender and World Class judge Dale DeGroff gives his take on a major new flavour revival.

“We must be sensitive to the guest and bring them into the world of the bitter-based spirits slowly.”

An aversion to bitter tasting things is built into our DNA, to protect us from harmful or poisonous things. So bitterness isn’t really a flavour until it is married with other ingredients.

But the bar community worldwide has embraced bitters and strong-stirred bitters-based drinks. The variety of aromatic and single flavoured bitters on the market today is one of the most telling statistics to support the rebirth of the cocktail.

The dictionary uses words like sharp, pungent, acrid or, to quote the almighty Google, a “lack of sweetness” to describe bitter, because it is more about mouthfeel than flavour. The sharpness of bitter ingredients becomes interesting when we marry it with flavour and aroma. The new Oxford Dictionary adds another sense to the concept of bitter as: “Having a sharp, pungent taste or smell...”

In fact, it is possible to experience bitterness in aroma; simply add several dashes of Angostura Bitters in a glass and then a splash of Fernet Branca in another glass. The Angostura almost has sweetness in the aroma when nosed next to the Fernet, yet both are called bitters. The Eugenol in the allspice lengthens the vanilla and other baking spice notes and gives the Angostura an almost pastry-like aroma. In the Fernet, cardamom, myrrh, chamomile, rhubarb and saffron are all bitter notes and they overpower the baking spice notes. Not to mention that we discover upon tasting Angostura that it finishes bittersweet not bitter.

Alcohol-based bitters are divided into potable and non-potable. The non-potable bitters like Angostura are used in drops in cocktails and culinary recipes to enhance or accent other ingredients. They are also suitable as a drying and balancing agent with sweet ingredients.

The potable bitters are a challenge for the average American drinker; bitter beverages like Campari and Fernet Branca require some work. The bitter aperitif is so much a part of dining in the European community they acquire the taste naturally at an early age.

In Italy, every little village seems to have a local amaro or digestive and they are experts at serving bitter ingredients to their best advantage. Drinks like the Americano Highball and the Negroni are served over ice in large glasses allowing constant dilution. The dilution is continually mellowing the bitter ingredient and marrying it with the other ingredients and the cocktail improves as you drink it.

On the other hand bitters-based drinks that are chilled and then served up taste best the first couple of sips, but as they warm the bitter ingredient overpowers the other ingredients instead of mellowing and marrying with them.

Bitters are integral to the fine dining experience, but they must be used to their best advantage. As servers we must be sensitive to the guest in front of us and bring them into the world of the bitter-based spirits and aromatics slowly, allowing them time to teach themselves under our expert guidance to acquire the taste for them.

Some great new bitters have appeared in recent years, and here’s my pick of them:

1. The Bitter Truth line of Aromatic and single focused bitter
2. Bittermens
3. Gary Regan’s Orange Bitters
4. The much expanded Fee Brothers Line
5. Angostura’s new Orange flavour
6. Dale DeGroff Pimento Aromatic bitters (allspice-based)
7. Scrappy’s

Do you think guests are ready for bitter-tasting cocktails? How far do you take it with bitterness in your drinks?