"Bitters are like salt in a cocktail,” says Don Ranasinghe. The founder of the Smoke & Bitters bar in Sri Lanka was a panellist at a cocktail masterclass at The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai, about three weeks ago. “They are a bartender’s best friend because they make our life easier,” says mixologist Varun Sharma, who heads the bar at Comorin in Gurugram, Haryana, and HOSA in Goa. “They are like a bartender’s spice rack,” notes YouTuber Lui Fernandes in the video What EXACTLY Are Cocktail Bitters?
Certainly, there’s no denying the importance of bitters in cocktails. For the highly concentrated flavours, to the point of being bitter, or karwa (as Sharma puts it), balance the taste notes in a drink. From roots to shoots and flowers to seeds, Sharma says, bitters use different parts of a plant in varying combinations for complex taste notes. Cinchona bark, gentian root and gondhoraj peels are examples of just a few of the ingredients used. These are infused with high-proof, neutral alcohol for several days to extract maximum flavour. If a bottle is labelled as orange or lavender bitters, it doesn’t indicate a single-ingredient concoction. It means there’s a dominant flavour of the fruit or flower in combination with spices or seeds. While ingredients from plants—or botanicals in bar-speak—have been around for centuries, new-age bitters include chai, coffee and chocolate.
Apart from the intense flavour, bitters have a potent aroma and just a dash or two is enough in a drink. “Some bartenders add bitters in cocktails that contain egg white, like a Pisco Sour or Whisky Sour, to mask any unwanted smell,” notes Yash Bhanage, co-founder of Hunger Inc. Hospitality, which runs The Bombay Canteen. The idea is that the aroma of a refreshing lime or orange bitter would make drinking it an enjoyable experience. So, in the world of mixology, these are categorised as aromatic bitters.
Cocktail-making follows a formula. “The drinks bible, Bartenders Guide by Jerry Thomas, highlights that a cocktail needs to have four elements: spirit, sugar, bitter and water,” says head mixologist Harish Chhimwal of the Olive Bar & Kitchen. He lists the basic recipe for an Old Fashioned: whisky or bourbon (spirit), one sugar cube, ice cubes (water) and two-three dashes of Angostura bitters. If the last element is removed, it would simply be a sweet libation with no complexity of flavour. It’s the bitter component that makes the difference. He experiments with this recipe by replacing Angostura bitters with coffee, chocolate or cherry bitters.
The most commonly available, Angostura bitters was created as a medicine by a German surgeon in the 19th century in Venezuela’s Angostura (now Ciudad Bolivar)to treat soldiers for stomach ailments. His family later migrated to Trinidad and set up The House of Angostura distillery, which now offers tours. Apart from this widely popular brand, there are options like Peychaud’s, The Bitter Truth and Bittermens.
The recipe for Angostura bitters is a secret but there are several bars which make versions in-house with locally available ingredients and repurposed leftovers. At Comorin, Sharma’s team created aromatic wine bitters with unused oxidised wines and mole (cacao) bitters with green chillies.
Bhanage played around with ingredients at home to make an orange bitter. It has orange peels dried in an oven, Kashmiri whole dried chillies, coriander seeds, fennel seeds and bay leaves infused for about a week in “the cheapest vodka you can get”. It can be a good gift for friends and a few dashes can elevate a Negroni or an Old Fashioned.