Yum Yum: Bitters

If you haven’t already noticed, cocktail culture in Toronto is thriving. It’s not enough anymore for restaurants to slap together a cocktail menu of kitschy martinis and mojitos, now bartenders have to produce a polished list of classic and inspired cocktails. The Sazarac, Old Fashioned and Manhattan have made a big comeback and if you don’t believe us, ask blogTO.

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If there’s something that all classic cocktails have in common, it’s their use of bitters. Bitters are made from infusing roots, herbs, bark, fruit peels, seeds, spices and botanicals to high-proof alcohol. We learned a little about the bartender’s “salt and pepper” when we took the Cocktails 101 workshop at BYOB and we returned to ask owner Kristen Voisey to school us in the art of bitters and how we can use them to make delicious concoctions at home.

Voisey in her awesome store.
Image: JJ Thompson
First, the history:

Bitters were first used as a medicine to cure everything indigestion-related until someone figured out they tasted great with alcohol (Ed. note: Thanks, someone!). Production boomed in the 1850’s in the US and at one point, there were hundreds of flavours available. But then along came prohibition and the bitters industry evaporated, leaving behind only two types: Angostura and Peychauds.

Wait. If there’s alcohol in bitters, then why can we buy them at grocery stores?

Bitters aren’t potable – which means that by definition, they are too concentrated in flavour to drink alone. That being said, there are potable bitters that you’ve probably seen in the LCBO like Campari, Fernet, Branca and Jagermeister, which are meant to be sipped on alone or added to a drink in ounces, not dashes.

She probably just tasted some Jager. 
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Jagermeister is a bitter? Makes sense. How about the classic cocktails we’re seeing on bar menus? What kind of bitters are used in them?

The number one bitter that every bar uses is Angostura. If a drink description includes ‘bitters’, you can assume they’re talking about Angostura. The Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Pisco Sour and the classic Champagne cocktail all use Angostura.

Peychauds, a bitter out of New Orleans, is another staple. It’s an essential ingredient in the Sazerac. It’s said that you can tell the worth of a bartender by how well they make a Sazerac.

To get creative at home, BYOB carries dozens of bitter flavours like peach, rhubarb, mint, grapefruit, lavender, chocolate, celery, black walnut, cherry, maple and more. They even have a Jerk bitter that would be a spicy Caesar drinker’s dream come true.

BYOB’s vast selection of Bitters.

Some bitters brands to look out for include Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth, Bittermens, Dr. Adams Bitters, Scrappy’s, Bittercube and The Bitter End.

At the end of the day, don’t be afraid to experiment. Try something as simple as Fee Brothers Grapefruit bitters in some gin and soda, or be daring and try Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters in tequila or dark rum – do whatever tastes good to you.

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We’re pulling our at-home cocktail inspiration from some of our favourite bars – Yours Truly’s Rare Earth cocktail, The County General’s Red Rooster and The Drake’s Pisco Fuzz. Drake even has a special new Cocktail Bar, where bartenders can give you all of the info above and more – while mixing you up a special drink. Yum!