Man. Every time I think humankind has created every form of cocktail bitters imaginable, someone goes and proves me wrong. New bitters brands just keep coming, some with unusual flavors and others with delicious variations on classic styles. I’m working my way through the growing cornucopia of cocktail bitters, sampling the wares of upstart bitterers to let you know which bottles are worth buying.
The offerings I’ve reviewed here demonstrate the creativity of today’s producers of bitters. From your traditional cherry and orange bitters to more esoteric styles such as hop and fig, here are several bottles to seek out (and a couple that are skippable).
The dudes at Hella Bitter have been busy dudes. They’ve designed a cool looking kit that you–yes, YOU–can use for the purpose of making bitters at home. In this kit, you’d find two infusion blends–a citrus spice blend and an aromatic blend–plus infusion jars, dropper bottles, a funnel, and a mesh strainer.
This might not be the thing for diehard bitterheads; most of you probably already make your own shit already anyway. But it would be a great gift for someone just getting into cocktails, or if you yourself are just getting into cocktails, it would be a great self-gift to give yourself for being such an awesome self.
Help Kickstart a cool project out of Atlanta, Georgia. Missy and Kristin Koefod are trying to launch a company to sell bitters, shrubs, syrups, tinctures, tonics, and other cocktail mixers, and they need your help. With 4 days to go, they’re at $5,770 pledged toward their $7,500 goal. Please help them get over the top!
Now, you young folks won’t remember this, but back in my day, when you wanted to make a cocktail, and you needed some cocktail bitters, you went to the soda-pop aisle of your grocery and found the shelves dedicated to mixers for adult beverages, and if you were lucky, you’d see a bottle of Angostura right there sitting next to the lime cordial and the sour mix and the tonic water.
Then about eight years ago, the bartender and booze writer Gary Regan formulated the newest and greatest recipe of his orange bitters, sensing a need in the marketplace, and so it came to pass that Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 became available to bartenders and cocktail nerds.
These days, you kids are spoiled for choice. I decided one day to count the number of upstart companies producing bitters, and I had to stop when I got to 30 because I can’t count much higher than that.
Repeal Day came and went this year, with nary a comment from me. What can I say? Bad blogger. Today, though, I want to revisit a cocktail I first explored four years ago, for Repeal Day 2006: the Thistle. The Thistle is a simple cocktail; my version came from Robert Vermeire’s Cocktails: How to Mix Them, and it calls for 2 parts Scotch, 1 part Italian vermouth, and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters.
Wait a minute. Scotch, sweet vermouth, and bitters? Yes, you’re going to say the same thing someone else said in 2006, and that Erik “The Obscurist” Ellestad noted earlier this year: that’s a Rob Roy. Okay, it’s a Rob Roy. It’s a Thistle. It’s a York. You can call it a peppermint patty for all I care, it’s a fine damn drink.
I don’t know how to admit this to you, dear readers, but I actually prefer a sweet Thistleroy to a sweet Manhattan. Even made with rye, a sweet Manhattan simply tastes too sweet to me. For it to be truly tasty, I have to make the perfect variation on it: 2 oz. rye, 1/2 oz. sweet vermouth, and 1/2 dry vermouth. Scotch, though (even a blended variety), brings enough smokey character to the cocktail to rise up and tame the sweet vermouth.
Four years ago, I used Dewars for the scotch, and Cinzano for the vermouth. This time, I went a different route, and came up with something my wife and I loved. First, I wanted to play with a single malt in this instead of a blend. I used Knockdhu Distillery’s An Cnoc 12, a well-balanced and relatively inexpensive Highlands whisky.
For the vermouth, I chose a product that wasn’t even available to me (or anyone in the United States) in 2006: the French Dolin Rouge. I’m really starting to shun the available-everywhere products like M&R or Cinzano, in favor of more bitter and herbal vermouths such as Dolin or Carpano Antica, the latter of which I have to schlep from Boston. I found that the Dolin’s bittersweet herbaceous qualities married well with the An Cnoc.
Finally, I rounded the drink out with Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters from the Bitter Truth. I remembered, too late, that I had drained the Angostura the previous evening. But it’s okay, because I like the Christmas-spiciness of the Jerry Thomas.
In all, the Yorkeroy is a great drink that deserves a regular spot in my drinks rotation, and it’s proven itself as open to experimentation as a horny college student. I’ll have another.
(If you’re joining me from Serious Eats, welcome aboard. Look around, kick the tires, poke the cats, and pour yourself a stiff one.)
Sam Harrigan and crew have chosen a winner and it’s Blair Frodelius of Good Spirits News! Blair, Sam will contact you directly to arrange shipping. Congratulations, Blair, and thanks to all who entered! (sorry if anything looks wonky on this post. I’m using the WP app for the iPhone, as I’m currently on an Amtrak train in Connecticut.)