Have you ever tasted a cocktail bitters straight? When I was a kid, my mother was a bartender. She always had a bottle of Angostura bitters on hand. I used to love to sample it. It was both disgustingly bitter, and surprisingly thrilling to taste. Being so young, I can’t say I could make out a all the flavors. I would just taste a dash or two and pucker up my mouth, feeling that astringency and enjoying/hating that bitter taste sensation. Seems strange, but it’s not really when you understand flavor.
The same reason why we can simultaneously shudder and be strangely invigorated by highly bitter tastes is the same reason why they do something special to a cocktail; the thing that made them integral to the style of mixed drink in the first place.
To start to understand why bitters are used in cocktails, and why they are becoming a bit of a thing (there are hundreds of bitters on the market, from mass-market to craft artisan) you first have to understand taste and flavor. Then you have to understand a bit more about the taste we call bitter.
If you understand all that (at least a little), then you are beginning to understand something about bitter flavors. We are extremely sensitive to them! We can perceive bitter flavors so well that it only takes the tiniest amount of bitterness to trigger our taste buds. As you have learned if you read the articles linked, we are primed, as a species, to pick up this taste. Bitter flavors often signal toxins, and we must be on guard for toxins that we might inadvertently ingest. So, we evolved to be sensitive to the bitter tastes that go along with many common plant toxins. We tend to be put off by the taste. We don’t like a lot of it. It causes a reaction that causes us to stop eating or drinking the offending substance.
But the same mechanisms that make us so sensitive to this taste, also, strangely enough, make it attractive. Because, when bitter tastes are present, it’s as if our taste sensation goes on high alert! We can taste other flavors better. So, when a little bit of a bitter taste is added to something that is, say, just sweet and sour, the whole thing wakes up and everything tastes more exciting. A little bitterness added to a sweet tasting food or beverage makes heightens the perception of sweetness. And these basic tastes are the first thing we really notice. Other components of flavor, such as “aromatics” tend to hit us a bit after those basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, umami, and bitter (I’m assuming you’ve read the article linked and know what all these are). When bartenders speak of complexity of a cocktail, they aren’t just talking about using many ingredients, but how you experience the flavors, including the order in which you perceive them. They also say things like “bitters help marry flavors” which is too vague and ill-defined for me to lend any credence, so let’s just say, they make things taste right when they don’t!
The bitter taste itself, when not too much, adds an interesting taste and mouth-feel, that mouth-puckering drying astringency that we associate with bitterness.
Bitter flavors are a natural part of the plant foods we eat. Even though they may be associated with toxins, this doesn’t mean we never eat them. Some of our favorite vegetables and herbs are quite bitter. Therefore, bitter tastes are a natural part of our diet, and when absent, something is missing. So, bitters added to cocktails not only serve to enliven the taste, it is also an integral and quite expected part of a full taste experience. You may not actually notice the bitter component of a drink, but if you had the same drink again without the bitter, you’d notice something missing. Although there are many ingredients that might add a bitter dimension to a drink, there is really no substitute for cocktail bitters, since they are made with ingredients that are more bitter than we’d normally use, and the taste is extremely concentrated. To learn more about the types of ingredients used, and how to make your own cocktail bitters see this homemade bitters recipe.
More, like heat from chiles, we learn to like bitter more as we taste it. We start to appreciate the taste, and once we over-ride the initial protective reaction, and nothing bad happens, instead of being revolted by the taste, we start to appreciate it. At least some of us do! For this reason, many of use enjoy very bitter or “hoppy” beers. These are beers like IPA’s with a lot of hops. The hops are a bittering agent for beer (hops can also be used in bitters). As well, some of us like to add a few dashes of bitters to a beer that is not so bitter at the start.
If you are getting into bitters, and want to understand all the many options on the market, and learn about how they can be used to livin’ up your homemade cocktails, the choices can be bewildering! If you would like to cut through some of this confusion and learn about the many different bitters available, plus a whole lot more about cocktails, I’d recommend what I have taken to calling the bitters book: Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari: 500 Bitters; 50 Amari; 123 Recipes for Cocktails, Food & Homemade Bitters. Mark Bitterman describes, using charts, 500 bitters, and 50 amaris. Amaris are Italian liqueurs which are very bitter and can be used in cocktails or drank alone. Cocktail and even food recipes are included.
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