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The twisted side of cocktail bitters

New flavors of these potent, flavorful extracts revolutionize both cocktails and cuisine.
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Photo by Ed Rudolph

Photo by Ed Rudolph

If you want proof that the line between foodie and cocktail connoisseur has blurred considerably, look no further than a bartender’s collection of tiny bitters bottles.

Within the booming artisanal bitters market is a rapidly expanding sub-segment of offerings that emulate flavors that traditionally have been more at home on a plate than in a glass.

“I’m literally robbing from my spice shelf to make some of these bitters,” says Lee Egbert, founder of Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Dashfire Bitters, whose portfolio includes Sichuan, Bay Leaf and Mole varieties.

Prior to the craft cocktail revolution, you were likely to find no more than two bitters styles at your local watering hole, one typically aromatic, the other citrusy, also known as the “salt and pepper” of the bar. But those days are long gone.

“Part of it is that there are a lot more bitter drinks, bitter flavors, bittering agents all over the place,” says Alex Luboff, co-host of the Washington, D.C.-based cocktail podcast Speaking Easy with fellow home bartender Jordan Wicker.

Boutique bitters brands owe their existence, in no small part, to the experimental exploits of bartenders themselves, who infuse various bitter, aromatic botanicals with vodka or whiskey.

“Any bar that calls itself a cocktail bar tends to have at least a couple of housemade bitters,” adds Wicker, who considers himself more of a traditionalist but dabbles with flavors like campfire smoke in his own concoctions.

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But you don’t need to turn your own kitchen into a sort of mad scientist’s flavor lab: Here are a few bottles you can pick up for your home bar.

Dashfire
Dashfire’s Sichuan bitters offer a flavor profile that’s a departure, even among culinary-inspired products. Anyone who’s ever eaten a plate of mapo tofu knows the floral, tingly, almost anesthetic sensation that comes with biting into an errant Sichuan peppercorn. In bitters form, its botanical nature adds zing to gin drinks like gimlets and G&Ts. The company’s Mole Bitters can impart some cocoa and poblano pepper spice notes to tequila or mezcal-based cocktails.

18.21 Bitters
Atlanta, Georgia-based 18.21 is all over the map with its flavors—quite literally. Its Baltimore Bitters evoke Chesapeake crab boils, with accents of celery and Old Bay seasoning that practically beg to be added to a Bloody Mary. Meanwhile, the Spicy Creole Bitters are an ode to the Big Easy, with a taste reminiscent of jambalaya. And then there’s 18.21’s Tart Cherry and Saffron Bitters, inspired by Persian cooking. It’s a striking component of a modern Manhattan or a Peruvian pisco sour. Such flavors, says 18.21 CEO Missy Koefod, really bring cocktails to the dinner table. “You don’t just have to pair wine and beer with food,” Koefod points out. “There are really innovative bartenders out there who know how to craft cocktails that pair really well with the dishes that the restaurants are serving.”

Big Watt Cold Beverage Co.
Big Watt, a sister company of Minneapolis-based coffee company Five Watt, offers an ever-expanding bitters line that includes such polarizing flavors as coriander and sweet fennel. “The flavor of fennel is represented in almost every culture on the planet,” says CEO Jason Westplate. He notes that he hit on a recipe that appeals not just to drinkers, but to chefs, as some restaurants have been adding Big Watt bitters to dishes like scallops. “We’re just super excited to see our bitters used in ways outside of cocktails.”

Hella Cocktail Co.
When the founders of Hella experimented with different peppers at their production facility in New York’s Long Island City neighborhood, they discovered that the dried, smoked pasilla chile from Oaxaca, Mexico—the epicenter of mezcal distilling— offered a complex level of savory, earthy, smoky heat that others did not. “We fell in love with that profile on the spot,” recalls co-founder Tobin Ludwig. “It almost imparts a ‘cooked over the campfire’ kind of quality.” Naturally, Hella’s Smoked Chili Bitters, are a caliente companion for agave-based spirits, and jazz up Scotch whisky drinks, as well. •

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