There's a scene from an old movie that perfectly captures the beauty of cocktail bitters. In the comedy epic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, alcoholic pilot Tyler Fitzgerald (played by Jim Backus, the billionaire of Gilligan's Island fame) relinquishes the controls of his private plane to hit the bar after one too many sweet cocktails from Mickey Rooney. "I'm gonna make us an Old Fashioned the old fashioned way, the way good ol' dad used to make 'em," he snarls to a terrified Buddy Hackett after a 10-second flying tutorial. "What if something happens!" screams Hackett, gripping the controls, to which Backus responds: "What could possibly happen to an Old Fashioned?"
Bitters cocktails — drinks whose distinctive flavors come from distillations of bark, planets, or herbs — are both fundamentally uncomplicated yet infinitely complex, easy to whip up at your own bar for company but easy to ruin with the wrong proportions. Cocktails like the Old Fashioned all follow the same formula, but the variable flavors of bitters, from sweet to bitter to bittersweet, allow even the most amateur bartender to craft their own distinct take on even the most old fashioned of Old Fashioneds.
To gain insight into the secret mysteries of bitters, we met up with Sother Teague, the drinks director at New York City bitters emporium Amor y Amargo. Teague, who spent years as a chef, takes pride in serving up infinite variations of the classic Old Fashioned, Negroni, and Manhattan, and was happy to show us the ropes.
There are only three components to making a good bitters cocktail: Alcohol is your primary base, but you can't just throw some orange peel into a stiff bourbon and call it a day. You'll need both bittering agent (like the quinine in tonic water or other roots and herbs) and a flavoring agent (those delicious Angostura bitters) that provide a distinct "top note" taste. It's the interaction between these two elements and your base liquor that will create the distinct flavor you're shooting for.
There are two distinct types of bitters: A bitter is never just a bitter. Potables (of "potent potables" fame) tend to be sweet, with a less concentrated flavor and a low ABV rating. Potables turn up apertifs like the Campari, the essential component of a Negroni, or roots like gentian, one of the more aromatic bitters. These are the flavoring agents you'll deploy in moderation to add some lightness to your drink.
By contrast, tinctures are far less sweet, far more concentrated in flavor, and have a way higher ABV rating than potables. They're imbalanced and unlike a glass of Campari can't easily be consumed on their own. Tinctures tend to be high proof, which means their excessive use can ruin a cocktail unless countered by another modifier like a potable or a boldly flavored liquor.
Know the essentials: While you can make a bitters cocktail with an infinite variety of bittering and flavoring agents, Teague suggests that the salt and pepper of your cocktail tool kit are the gentian-based Peychaud's Bitters, the ubiquitous and eternally recognizable Angostura bitters, which are a mixture of barks and spices favored by almost every bartender on the planet, and orange bitters (usually distilled from Seville oranges).
Proof matters: Since the bitters cocktail is all about balance, pay close, close attention to the proof of the booze you're using for a base. "A 100-proof Old Fashioned without any modifiers is a real throat-burner, but an 80-proof is a bit more manageable," says Teague. "But for the Manhattan, you actually want the 100-proof spirit to stand up to the vermouth."
It's OK to experiment: "Imagine that you're making a soup," says Sother. "You don't just make broth, do you? You throw in salt and spices and pepper and vegetables to make yourself a flavorful meal. That's all a cocktail really is: a soup of alcohol."
This comes with a caveat: proportions are what make a cocktail a cocktail. "Never blindly mix," says Sother. Follow a formula, like the easily rememberable 2-1-2 area code-inspired ingredients of the classic Manhattan.
There are really only three basic bitters cocktails: The only cocktails that Teague and his team serve up at Amor y Amargo are an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan and a Negroni — but they serve infinite variations of these classic drinks:
- Old Fashioned: 2 oz spirits (bourbon or rye), 1 tsp cane syrup or simple syrup, 2 dashes bitters.
- Manhattan: 2 oz spirit (rye), 1 oz sweet vermouth, 2 dashes bitters
- Negroni: 1.5oz spirit (gin), 3/4 oz (semi-sweet) vermouth, 3/4 oz Campari
In reality, all drinks need bitters: Even the most flavorful spirits were never intended to be consumed on their own. "You should never skip a component, since each additional element adds one more layer of complexity," says Sother. "And it's that additional complexity that will delight your guests.
If you're interested in more bitters cocktails than you can shake a mixing spoon at, follow Sother's delightfully satiating Instagram account at @CreativeDrunk.