The bitter truth

This week I wanted to share a question that I got from a fan recently. If one person reached out to ask me about this, I’m guessing there are several of you who also want to know the answer. Here goes!

Dear Judy,
What’s the deal with bitters? What are they, and why would I want to use them?
Signed, Potentially Bittersweet

Bittersweet, you fashionable cocktologist, you:

Originally, bitters were the ingredient that made a cocktail a cocktail, as opposed to a toddy, a sling, a fizz, a sour, or a flip. For a long time, adding bitters to your drink was considered a very classy thing to do. Then Prohibition happened. Suddenly nobody could afford to be picky about their booze, and bitters sank into oblivion.  Angostura_Bitter_Flasche

Recently, though, bitters have made a comeback. Thanks to all the fun flavors available these days, bitters are more than just trendy and cool; they’re considered to be the spice rack of your bar.

So just what are bitters, you asked? They’re basically a concentrate made from fruits, seeds, spices, roots, herbs, or flowers. Some of the most popular bitters are made from orange or lemon peel, cardamom, celery, cranberry, and grapefruit. High-proof alcohol is used to extract the flavors, and the result is a tincture that is around 80 proof. Bitters are too intense and too – you guessed it, bitter – to just drink on their own, but adding a few drops in a cocktail can turn it from drab to fab in a jiffy. Derek Brown, co-owner of The Columbia Room in Washington DC, has this to say: “Whenever a bitter flavor hits your tongue, it lights up your brain and sends you one of two messages: ‘This could kill you,’ or ‘This could be fun.’ Some bitters work as accents, others as binders to connect the dots of the flavors. Just adding a little bitters brings out the crux of a cocktail’s character.”

Well, Bittersweet, I hope you’re inspired to try some bitters in your next Bloody Mary. I personally like celery bitters, but you can experiment with cucumber, lemon, or olive bitters too. Look for them in your favorite liquor store, or online.

Let us know what you come up with. Thanks for your great question!