Just as salt is experiencing something of a revolution (truffle salt, herb salt, smoked salt, etc.) so, too, are cocktail bitters. Where once you might have found a bottle of Angostura or Peychaud’s on the shelf, the market has exploded with intriguing new variations such as black walnut, grapefruit, Siracha, and Moroccan spice.
Apart from being trendy, both salt and bitters share a common ability to enhance and marry flavors while staying in the background.
Add an alcohol to fruit juice, and you’ll end up with boozy fruit juice. But add a splash of bitters, and you suddenly have a cocktail — complex, balanced, and sophisticated. Indeed, the right kind of bitters can elevate just about any drink: gin and tonics, Manhattans, rum and coke, margaritas ... as well as soft drinks.
And it’s not just drinks that bitters make better, but food as well.
Amongst my quirky collection of mid-century promotional booklets (e.g. The Joys of Jello, and Creative Cooking with Cottage Cheese) is The Angostura Cook Book, which actually has some decent ideas. While I’m not likely to make “Sunday Chipped Beef” or “Prune Chiffon Melva” anytime soon, I have found that bitters add a subtle dimension to things such as carrot soup, salad dressing, dips and pumpkin pie filling.
So, when I saw that a class on DIY cocktail bitters was being offered through the continuing education program at Walla Walla Community College, I signed up.
The class, taught by Catherine and Joe Schiaffo, took place over two sessions. During the first class, students worked in teams to create bitters from the multitudinous ingredients the Schiaffo’s assembled: bittering agents such as gentian root, cacao nibs, quassia chips and wild cherry bark; aromatics such as peppercorns, cardamom, fennel seed, lemongrass; as well as fresh and dried fruit.
Ingredients are placed in a jar with a high-proof spirit (depending on the recipe, we used Everclear, rum, and whiskey) and each jar went home with a volunteer to be shaken once a day for two weeks.
During the second class, we strained, bottled and labeled the bitters (and sampled a couple of different cocktails made with bitters we created).
We all came away with eye dropper bottles of key lime, cherry, vanilla, rhubarb and orange bitters plus recommendations for cocktails to make with them. Ingredients vary depending on the style of bitters you’re making, which could be citrus, savory, fruit or spice.
I used our cherry bitters to make a tart cherry old fashioned: two pitted, stemmed sour cherries (I keep my freezer stocked with Montmorency pie cherries), a 2-inch strip of orange peel, ½ teaspoon of sugar and a few dashes of cherry bitters. Lightly muddle together, then add 2 ounces of whiskey, ice, and stir.
Registration is now open for a spring session of the Schiaffo’s DIY cocktail class (taught April 23 and May 7). For this spring class, the Schiaffos plan to focus on flavors of summer such as barbecue, cola or rootbeer, habanero, and raspberry.
Whether you make your own or buy, I hope you’ll add bitters to your arsenal — you’ll be “bitter off” if you do.