CLOSE
Courtesy of Jessica Jack Wyrick
Courtesy of Jessica Jack Wyrick

Why Add Bitters to a Cocktail?

Courtesy of Jessica Jack Wyrick
Courtesy of Jessica Jack Wyrick

Bottles of bitters aren’t just cool bar decorations anymore. Adding a dash or two to a drink can add complex flavors and balance to most cocktails. However, in these small amounts, this magical ingredient won’t make the whole drink bitter. They’ll just make it better.

At their simplest, bitters are highly concentrated tinctures. Scientifically, tinctures are defined as alcohol-based extractions of plant or animal matter. Since alcohol is both a preservative and solvent, many of these bitters solutions were sold as cure-alls and stomach medicines in the 19th century and before.

According to Ted Breaux, a professional scientist and founder/president of Jade Liqueurs, this arrangement was also beneficial for sellers because, while alcoholic beverages were taxed, medicines containing alcohol were not. “Back in those days, the lines between alcoholic beverages and medicine were blurry at best,” Breaux says. Even before the word cocktail was invented, people in rural America were taking morning nips of bitters as preventatives.

In fact, alcohol-based bitters weren’t really regulated until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. It was only at that point that limits on alcohol content and medicinal claims went into effect. Between this law and Prohibition, most small producers went out of business.

A Bitter Taste in Your Mouth

Even though bitters may not have much therapeutic benefit, they can go a long way to making a cocktail tastier. Humans’ taste buds can pick up on five basic flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory (also called umami). On a very basic level, humans have a natural aversion to bitterness. For many years, scientists believed that this dislike developed as a natural safeguard against eating bitter plants, but a recent study suggests that explanation doesn’t hold up.

When combined, the five basic tastes interact in interesting ways. For example, adding an undetectable amount of salt to a bitter and sour drink can suppress the bitterness and accentuate the sour. On the other hand, adding bitter ingredients can dampen sweetness, giving rise to more complex flavor combinations.

Hit The Lab

Recently, crafting homemade bitters has become popular with professional and amateur bartenders alike. With the availability of the high-proof alcohol and various plants and herbs necessary to making bitters, it’s easy to make your own. However, choose your ingredients carefully. Even small changes can have a huge impact on the resulting taste.

Science-wise, the biggest difference in taste will stem from the proof of your base alcohol. “If you use a 90 percent alcohol by volume [ABV] instead of a 40 percent ABV, the result is completely different,” says Breaux. “Some elements in botanicals are soluble in ethanol while others are water-soluble and not as soluble in alcohol.” Most experts recommend using between 80 and 140 proof base spirits. For more information on that subject, pick up a copy of Brad Thomas Parsons’s Bitters.

Arguably, Angostura Aromatic Bitters are the most commercially available product in the market. However, small batch producers are making a comeback, and new products regularly become available. One of the many iconic classic cocktails that necessitates bitters is the Manhattan. Named for the borough of New York City, this cocktail may have originated at one of a dozen bars in the Big Apple around the 1870s.

If you’re feeling adventurous, mix up one Manhattan with bitters and one without to taste the contrast in sweetness and general flavor experience. Trust me, it’ll be a big difference.

Manhattan

3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 oz sweet vermouth
2 oz rye whiskey or bourbon
Orange peel for garnish

Combine all ingredient except the orange peel in a mixing glass and stir vigorously for 13-16 seconds or until thoroughly mixed. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of (or a flamed) orange peel. Enjoy.

Primary image courtesy of Jessica Jack Wyrick.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
James Duong, AFP/Getty Images
arrow
alcohol
The Latest Way to Enjoy Pho in Vietnam: As a Cocktail
James Duong, AFP/Getty Images
James Duong, AFP/Getty Images

Pho is something of a national dish in Vietnam. The noodle soup, typically topped with beef or chicken, can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. There’s even a version of it for happy hour, as Lonely Planet reports.

The pho cocktail, served at Nê Cocktail Bar in Hanoi, contains many of the herbs and spices found in pho, like cinnamon, star anise, cilantro, and cardamom. Without the broth or meat, its taste is refreshingly sweet.

The drink's uniqueness makes it a popular choice among patrons, as does the dramatic way it's prepared. The bartender pours gin and triple sec through the top of a tall metal apparatus that contains three saucers holding the spices. He then lights the saucers on fire with a hand torch as the liquid flows through, allowing the flavors to infuse with the alcohol as the drink is filtered into a pitcher below.

The pho cocktail
James Duong, AFP/Getty Images

Pham Tien Tiep, who was named Vietnam’s best bartender at the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition in 2012, created the cocktail six years ago while working at the famous French Colonial-era hotel the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, according to AFP. He has since brought his signature drink to several of the stylish bars he owns in Vietnam’s capital, including Nê Cocktail Bar.

Initially, he set out to create a drink that would represent Vietnam’s culture and history. “I created the pho cocktail at the Metropole Hotel, just above the war bunkers where the American musician Joan Baez sang to the staff and guests in December 1972 as bombs fell on the city,” Tiep told Word Vietnam magazine. “The alcohol in the cocktail is lit on fire to represent the bombs, while spices, such as chili and cinnamon, reflect the warmness of her voice.”

Tiep has a reputation for infusing his drinks with unusual local ingredients. He has also created a cocktail that features fish sauce, a popular condiment in Vietnam, and another that contains capsicum, chili, and lemongrass in an ode to the bo luc lac (shaking beef) dish, according to CNN.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Health
Just 5 Alcoholic Drinks a Week Could Shorten Your Lifespan
iStock
iStock

Wine lovers were elated when a scientific study last year suggested that drinking a glass of wine a day could help them live longer. Now a new study, published in The Lancet, finds that having more than 100 grams of alcohol a week (the amount in about five glasses of wine or pints of beer) could be detrimental to your health.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the British Heart Foundation studied the health data of nearly 600,000 drinkers in 19 countries and found that five to 10 alcoholic drinks a week (yes, red wine included) could shave six months off the life of a 40-year-old.

The penalty is even more severe for those who have 10 to 15 drinks a week (shortening a person’s life by one to two years), and those who imbibe more than 18 drinks a week could lose four to five years of their lives. In other words, your lifespan could be shortened by half an hour for every drink over the daily recommended limit, according to The Guardian, making it just as risky as smoking.

"The paper estimates a 40-year-old drinking four units a day above the guidelines [the equivalent of drinking three glasses of wine in a night] has roughly two years' lower life expectancy, which is around a 20th of their remaining life," David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge who was not involved with the study, tells The Guardian. "This works out at about an hour per day. So it's as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette."

[h/t The Guardian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios