The featured bitters, from left: Bittered Sling, Bittermens, The Bitter Truth, Cocktailpunk

Bitter Deluge

Sorting through the new cocktail bitters

BY WAYNE CURTIS | Photo by R.J. Hinkle

The number of aromatic cocktail bitters available today boggles the mind. In a decade flat, it's gone from that lonely bottle of Angostura to shelves groaning with hundreds of bitters options.

For the unindoctrinated, the bitters boom has been both boon and bane. On the plus side - so much choice! On the downside - so much choice! The options can seem like a confusing kaleidoscope of wild flavors and concepts. What should we make of charred pineapple bitters and bacon peppercorn bitters? It's hard to sort out which newcomers result from inspired experimentations and which are regrettable train wrecks arising from late-night brainstorms best suppressed.

Where to start? We tried a few dozen newly released bitters in search of greatness - sniffing, sampling, testing them out in various cocktails - and found four that strike us as well worth seeking out and introducing to your favorite cocktail. (Rejoice: Unlike liquor, which is hobbled by varying state laws, bitters are widely available by mail.)

BITTER BITS
• Bitters enhance by staying in the background. You shouldn't actually taste them in a drink, no more than you should taste salt in your dinner.
• Remember, they're dispensed by the dash, which means the bitters you buy today may well last long enough to become your heirs' property.


BITTERED SLING

Orange & Juniper Bitters
Vancouver mixologist Lauren Mote named her company after an early term for cocktail (cocktail = sling + bitters), and her innovative bitters convey audacious, ambitious flavors. Her Orange & Juniper Bitters brings together an uncommon combination that delivers more than the sum of its parts. Use it to enliven a vodka or tequila drink, or try it in Mote's own Liberation cocktail (see recipe below). $25/120 mL; bitteredsling.com

BITTERMENS
Transatlantic Modern Aromatic Bitters
The Portland, Ore.-based bitters company consistently releases clever, innovative variations that make a cocktail sing. This new variety borrows from both European and American cultures, drawing on deep notes typical of an Italian amaro, but mixing them with an upbeat American gingerbread flavor. Nicely showcased in rum or whiskey drinks. $18/5 ounces; bittermens.com

THE BITTER TRUTH
Nut Drops and Dashes
To herald its 10th anniversary, this German-based producer - one of the earliest innovators in the modern bitters revival - released a series of four new bitters. These include Blossom, Nut, Roots, and Wood. Our pick: Nut, which offers cocktails a rich, earthy ballast. It plays well with bourbon or rye drinks; try giving a new twist to your Old-Fashioned. $20/100 mL; the-bitter-truth.com

COCKTAILPUNK
Barrel-Aged Aromatic Bitters
Lately, Cocktailpunk has been experimenting with bitters aged in oak casks. "Bitters and wood are interesting bedfellows," says owner Raymond Snead. "Time in barrel affects the bitters as you might expect, rounding and softening, yet adding something, too." The new Barrel-Aged Aromatic Bitters is both bright and soft, featuring whispering notes of cardamom. Great in rum drinks. $14/2 ounces; cocktailpunk.com

Liberation

From mixologist and bitters producer Lauren Mote
1 ounce Calvados
1 ounce Campari
1/2 ounce Lillet
1/2 ounce fino sherry
2 dashes Orange & Juniper Bitters
orange twist

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and stir with ice until well chilled. Strain into a rocks glass and serve with orange twist.

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