LATELY, one Angeleno has been telling bartenders to keep adding bitters to her Champagne cocktail "until it's the color of my prom dress." That's way more than a dash or two -- it takes about a teaspoon of Angostura to turn Champagne pink.
She positively likes bitters. How about that? Not too long ago, bitters seemed just a weird leftover from the golden age of 19th century quack medicines -- an evil-tasting liquid that came in tiny bottles with wordy, antique labels. It may have been traditional in certain cocktails, but many people had taken to leaving it out.
Today, though, these bitter extracts of roots, barks and other botanical ingredients seem to be making a comeback. Just a few years ago, liquor stores usually carried only one brand of bitters, Angostura, but now you can easily find five or six, with radically different flavors, including orange, peach and mint.
The fact is, you can get tired of all the simple-minded cocktails being invented in this flavored-vodka-plus-fruit-juice age. Bitters clean up after too much sweetness.
Still, the taste for bitterness might seem surprising. We all think bitterness is unpleasant -- but is it? Children certainly don't like it, but as grown-ups we learn to love coffee and chocolate. In fact, these days we're actually going for more bitterness -- espresso, ever darker and more bitter chocolate.
"From a taste standpoint," says Peter Birmingham, bartender-sommelier at Norman's in West Hollywood, "a bitters makes the mouth water and promotes visual and smell pleasures, because it contains concentrated flavor essences. The bitterness itself makes the flavors [of a drink] extend. Here at Norman's, we hang our hat on a Manhattan made with Peychaud bitters, sweet vermouth and Joshua Brook bourbon."
The Manhattan is a classic cocktail because it harmoniously amplifies the rugged, woody flavor of whiskey with the fruity sweetness of vermouth and the perfume and bracing astringency of bitters. Birmingham's particular version relies on the exotic flavor of Peychaud.
"Most bars don't even bother using Angostura bitters in their Manhattans anymore, which is a real shame," says Jeremiah Doherty of Grace in Los Angeles. "Try the two side by side and you'll be able to tell the difference, I promise."
"Another thing," says Birmingham. "Most bitters have a modest alcohol profile, so they give you a lift without mowing you down. They're particularly useful in non-alcoholic cocktails." For pregnant women and others who want a very low alcohol drink, Birmingham makes a virgin mojito with a couple of splashes of mint bitters. "It's like mint-flavored limeade with a little something extra," he says.
Bitters were originally medicines. If you tell a bartender you have an upset stomach, he'll probably give you a glass of soda and bitters -- and it will probably work. A lot of people trust bitters to see them through the early stages of a hangover. Certain bitters started out as malaria treatments, because they contained quinine, just as tonic water does.
Still others once claimed to cure absolutely anything that ailed you. Many of the worthless patent medicines so popular in the late 19th century billed themselves as bitters. One secret of their popularity was the fact that they were extracted from all their secret roots and herbs with alcohol. They were a respectable way of getting a shot of booze.
So it's not surprising that medicinal bitters ended up in mixed drinks, particularly when their beneficial effect on flavor was recognized. Until the late 1880s, every drink called a cocktail contained bitters.
There's a distinction to be made between aromatic bitters -- the kind that come in tiny bottles and are used in small quantities as a flavoring -- and bitter liqueurs. The latter can be, and often are, drunk by themselves, because they're sweet enough to be palatable. Downing a shot of Jager is one thing, but even the biggest bitters fan in the world probably wouldn't drink a whole glass of Angostura.
The best-known aromatic bitters is Angostura with its spicy, clove-like aroma. "Angostura is versatile," says Birmingham. "It has a wide range of applications. But like Worcestershire sauce, it has only one note."
Peychaud's bitters has an anise and aromatic root scent, which makes it particularly suitable to cocktails with an anisette component, such as the famous Sazerac. Both Angostura and Peychaud's get their bitterness from gentian root, which adds its own dry, sardonic aroma.