It’s right there in the original description of a cocktail, dating back to 1806: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters – it is vulgarly called a bittered sling.”
In other words, bitters are what make a cocktail a cocktail. And that makes bitters an essential part of any home or professional bar.
Bitters are concoctions of spices, herbs and other botanicals, originally created as medicinal tonics, but now used mainly as flavouring additives. They’re bitter, yes, but they can also be herbal, spicy, floral, sweet, juicy, smoky, savoury and really, really complex.
Thousands of bitters have been created over time; in the golden age of the cocktail, back in the 1860s, many bartenders created their own.
But because they are typically alcohol-based infusions, bitters were banned during Prohibition and most were subsequently lost to history. One bitter slipped through a loophole, though, and until recently that was the only bitter you were likely to find in Canada: the mildly spicy Angostura.
But now, dozens of bitters are once again available, all designed to add flavour and complexity to cocktails. Some have been recreated from historic recipes and others are newly crafted by top bartenders. Some are even made right here in Vancouver.
In fact, says Sam Unger, “Some of the best bitters in the world come out of this city.”
She should know. She and her father Philip Unger are the founders of Ms. Better’s Bitters, one of three world-class bitters brands created here. The other two are Bittered Sling, created by bartender Lauren Mote, and Apothecary Bitters, from bartender Cole Benoit. All three are handcrafted, small batch, innovative and very Vancouver.
Unlike Mote and Cole, though, the Ungers are not bartenders: Unger is an artist who works with olfactory environments; her dad develops food products at a facility in Port Coquitlam.
They started playing with bitters after Philip Unger found a century-old recipe book that included a recipe for Angostura. Every time they created something new, like their Pineapple Star Anise or Lime Leaf bitters, they’d drop by Bambudda (sadly, now closed) in Gastown to get bartenders such as Tarquin Melnyk to test them.
“We kept bombarding Tarquin and bringing him things,” Unger says with a laugh. “It was when we brought him the vegan foamer that he said, ‘This time, I think you’ve got something.’ ”
“All the other products are amazing, but this gave us a foot in the door,” says Melnyk. “It stands alone in its category.” The foamer is now being used in bars from San Francisco to London, Italy and Hong Kong.
The foamer replaces egg whites in drinks like sours, flips and fizzes. It is easy to use, food-safe and eco-friendly. It is also wonderfully frothy, and avoids that unpleasant eggy aroma (which is why drinks shaken with egg whites almost always have a splash of something aromatic on top).
Which brings us back to bitters.
After two and a half years of tinkering, Ms. Betters Bitters officially launched in January 2016. A year later, the Ungers have created some 80 products, of which 15 are in circulation.
That’s a lot to chose from, so which do you actually need for your own home bar? Melnyk recommends starting with the Orange Tree, Chocolate, and Batch 42 Aromatic bitters, which all just happen to go together perfectly to create the best Old Fashioned you’ve every tried.
The Orange Tree “is like if you’re being dropped into an orange tree from a balloon,” Unger says. It starts with a floral orange blossom aroma, continues with a green leafy note, followed by a juicy burst of orange fruit and, finally, the woodsy bitterness of bark.
The Chocolate has a healthy shot of chili in it, adding bite to brandy or bourbon drinks, while Unger describes the cinnamon aromatic bitters, which are made with 48 different botanicals, as “Angostura on steroids.”
There are plenty of other choices, though, from the cooling Cypress Bowl to the spicy Black Pepper Cardamom to the juicy and refreshing Green Strawberry Mah-Kwan that, to Unger, tastes of nostalgia.
But whatever bitters you choose, it will surely make your cocktail experience a sweeter one.
—by Joanne Sasvari