Cocktail bitters are a bartender’s salt and pepper. Here’s our guide to B.C.’s best
Aficionados of Old Fashioneds are familiar with oversize-label bottles of Angostura, the classic aromatic bitters from Trinidad and Tobago that have made a million cocktails sing. Signature mixes of botanicals, often originally used as medicine, have earned famous bitters brands like Sazerac, Peychaud’s and Amargo Chunchon (for Pisco Sours) a place in the classic-cocktail canon.
Today, it’s a bitter, brave new world, with several B.C. companies making both traditional and innovative flavours. Try a few drops in a glass of sparkling water, or use bitters in a marinade or pan-deglazing liquid when cooking. Note that most bitters have a base of around 45 per cent alcohol (Fee Brothers, with a plant-based glycerin base, excepted)—though since you only use a few drops, they don’t significantly increase the proof of your drink. Watch for Surrey’s Central City Brewers & Distillers to debut its bitters line soon: six local flavours hand-mixed and bottled by its brand ambassador, Christos Kalaitzis (see story).
Ms. Better’s Bitters
Damp evergreens on a mountain slope on a warm winter day: That’s the smell of Cypress Bowl, just one of this brand’s inventive bitters blends that “carry you through a journey” of senses and memories. Dash pure notes of orange, chocolate or grapefruit, or let Green Strawberry Mah Kwan and Pineapple Star Anise blends help create unique and unmistakable drinks. This brand has become an international bartender darling for a reason.
Watch for: Wormwood or Smoke and Oak, shortcuts to adding pure palate-smacking bitterness and barrel age, respectively, to your drinks.
Favourite use: Lime Leaf in a classic daiquiri.
Make the Post Opium Daiquiri.
Take a talented chef’s palate and add a dash of global cocktailian flare, and you get the love child of Vancouver chef Jonathan Chovancek and bartender Lauren Mote. The wildly complex and creative formulas thrill “palate, plate and potion,” multi-tasking between kitchen and bar. Only whole botanicals (no extracts) are used. This brand doesn’t skimp on the essential bitter flavours: its name is an old-timey synonym for “cocktail.”
Watch for: Three gift packs containing six mini-bottles; the Bittered Sling Bistro recipe book.
Favourite use: Amaro-tinged Kensington in a Manhattan.
Make the Canadian Coffee.
Twisted & Bitter
With a copper-pot still and a ton of botanicals lying around, what’s a distiller to do? Victoria Distillers, aside from making award-winning gin, puts its assets to use in a line of bitters. Traditional orange (classic in a Martini) and versatile rosemary-grapefruit and ginger flavours turn your bar from the equivalent of a galley kitchen to a Michelin-starred flavour factory.
Watch for: Schizandra, an exotic berry that combines sour, sweet, salty, tangy and fruity tastes.
Favourite use: Black Pepper bitters to spike a Caesar.
Make the Appley Dapply.
The Apothecary Bitters Company
The prescriptive-sounding name is a play on what these can do for your home bartending: “Remedies for cocktails.” Bartender and brewer Cole Benoit makes small-batch brews—from aromatic General Ambrose’s to Mystic Caravan Smokey Pear—that add that “What is in this?” element to drinks. He collaborated with Long Table on its Amaro No. 1 Linnaeus, and you’ll find Apothecary bitters in heavy rotation in the tasting room there, as well as other local watering holes.
Watch for: A bourbon-barrel-aged edition of General Ambrose.
Favourite use: Spirit Fire Cherry Cedar bitters in an Old Fashioned.
Make the Curandero.
—by Charlene Rooke