Call me suckered, hoodwinked, or duped. I believe in magic potions. A man hawking small bottles of potion, proclaiming outlandish results. Out of curiosity, I skeptically try the potion.
A few shakes in a cocktail drink. A cocktail I am very familiar with, but with a mere few dashes of this elixir it became something new. Better. Incredibly delicious.
Cocktail Bitters have been known to many much more savvy than I, but for me it is an exciting new world. A mystical potion which marries the ingredients of a cocktail together. Just about anytime I find a bar making exceptional cocktails drinks, it is almost a guarantee that they have a beautiful stock of bitters frequently reached for behind the bar. Often times, there are bitters they are making themselves amongst the bottles.
My dawdling discovery of bitters magic powers recently came to fruition in the pages of a book. Not for the lack of signs trying to tell me the same thing. A reader commented about my use of triple sec in a margarita recipe, disapproving of it’s unctuous sweetness and mentioned it would be much better with some simple syrup and bitters instead. Diane comes home from photographing Bazaar, a hot restaurant in LA known for their exceptional cocktails recipes (among other things), and she is all aflutter talking about their house made bitters.
Time after time, bitters have been under my nose, and yet I’ve passed right over their magic. We’ve even had several bottles of bitters in amongst our golden elixirs of alcohol, but they were almost never used. But all of these subtle and not so subtle hints have taking me along my current path. Ripening me for the moment I laid hands on the book Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons.
Diane and I were meeting with the publishers of Ten Speed Press to discuss a project we were working on with them, and I spied the Bitters book on their shelf. They must have seen the twinkle in my eye, because the lovely ladies at Ten Speed handed us the book to take home as we concluded our meeting.
As much as I love cocktails, it is rare I get excited about a new book. I have my trusted resource on classic cocktails. Occasionally we’ll come across a beautiful book put out by an upstanding bar, and the drinks will be delicious and creative, yet I rarely make anything out of them. But this book has me excited. Beyond being a great read and resource, it is changing how I make cocktails.
We are in the process of making our own bitters, with the help of Parsons’ book, but there are already a great handful of exceptional bitters on the market. The process of bitters is month long, so until ours are ready, we’ve had fun playing with our purchased potions. Stomach a little uneasy? Some soda water a a few dashes of bitters may be the trick to settling your tummy.
Bitters for a cocktail is like the pepper and salt to a dish. Or the fish sauce to Vietnamese cuisine. By themselves it is a bit overpowering, but when added with the other ingredients they season it perfectly. Make two classic cocktails, one with bitters and one without and see which you like better. I can almost guarantee it will be the one with the bitters. For us, any cocktail I usually used triple sec in, I’ve now replaced that with a bit of simple syrup and a few dashes of orange bitters. Sidecars have never been so good.
Like most everything good in cocktails recipes there is always folklore and mystery involved and bitters are no exception. It is part of the beauty. One legend which I’ve yet to try but is fun to share, is the no-fail cure to hiccups. Soak a sugar coated lemon wedge with Angostura bitters and take a bite. Hiccups will be gone.
Since our limes are going ape nuts right now, here’s a margarita drink recipe sans the triple sec and with bitters and simple syrup balancing the lime and tequila.
Margarita Recipe - restored to being a pre-triple sec classic
Cook Time: 2 min.
Note how the cocktail smells before you shake it. Soon you'll recognize the scent of a well made margarita and will be able to make up a batch of them sole by scent.
- 1 1/2 oz Resposada or Anejo Tequila
- 1 1/2 oz fresh Lime Juice
- 1 oz Simple Syrup
- 3 dashes Orange Bitters
- kosher salt or sea salt for the rim
- Rub the rim of an old fashioned glass (or whatever glass you prefer) with an edge of a lime slice. Swirl the rim through a small pile of kosher or sea salt to salt the rim. Add one or two large cubes into the glass.
- Combine tequila, lime juice, simple syrup, and bitters in an ice filled shaker.
- Shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then strain into the salted glass. Serve or drink immediately and with leisure.
*a basic simple syrup is simply a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water. One cup sugar dissolved in one cup of water. This can always be modified for preferred taste and experimentation, but this is a good starting point.