Bitters might be the kind of esoteric cocktail thing you’re not too familiar with. Maybe you can picture your grandfather sipping a heavy-bottomed glass swirled with bitters, or perhaps you’ve glanced at a cocktail menu and noticed an overwhelming amount of drinks infused with the stuff. But either way, it’s probably safe to say that you have yet to be fully initiated in the art of bitters.
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That can quickly come to a close, thanks to a new cocktail guidebook called “Botany at the Bar,” written by Rachel Meyer, Ashley Duval, and Selena Ahmed, three botanists who met in graduate school and founded a craft-bitters-making company named Shoots & Roots Bitters. The book aims to provide a bit of an education on how to put together botanical drinks that are geared toward keeping you healthy. You’ll also find step-by-step guides to make your own bitters, shrubs, syrups, and herbal infusions at home, using ingredients you probably already have in your pantry (think saffron and lemongrass).
Botany at the Bar, $22.49 on Amazon
Below, you’ll read an excerpt from the book focusing on how to properly taste and enjoy a drink with bitters (one way is to first let the aroma of the bitter waft by your nose). Then, try your hand at elevating your cocktails with some bitters with a recipe for a spicy cocktail called 92 in the Shade, swirled with habanero cachaça, pineapple juice, coconut milk, and bitters made from sweet corn.
From “Botany at the Bar” by Selena Ahmed, Rachel Meyer, and Ashley DuVal © 2019 Selena Ahmed, Rachel Meyer, and Ashley DuVal. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
Enjoying Your Drink
Bitters have a widespread and ancient use as a way to extract and administer the medicinal properties of plants. At other times in history, such as the Prohibition era, they became a convenient guise for administering doses of alcohol through the ruse of medicine. Commercial bitters are increasingly recognized as important components of cocktails, shrubs, and sodas that can elevate drinks into an exquisite sensory journey.
How to Taste Bitters and Cocktails
There is no right or wrong way to enjoy a beverage. However, to take in as much sensory detail as possible, you can follow certain processes to compare and evaluate your own creations. Similar to wine, tasting bitters and cocktails has four stages.
Tasting starts with sight: Is the liquid transparent or translucent, dark or light? What is the color? Does the infusion look clear or does it have visible particles?
Next, test the aroma by wafting the bottle or glass in front of your nose. Inhale and exhale deeply. While there are hundreds of aroma compounds, it is helpful to think of them according to broad aroma categories, such as fruity, floral, spicy, nutty, or sweet. However, never limit your flavor experience to these given terms; let your imagination best describe what it perceives.
Now it’s time to taste the bitters or cocktail. Some concentrated bitters should be tasted a drop at a time, while others, just like cocktails, should be slurped. Swish the beverage around your mouth on all sides of the tongue and inner cheeks. Pay attention to the taste sensations as well as what it feels like (including structure and texture).
Next, inhale deeply through your mouth, then exhale through your nose with your mouth closed. This is a retronasal breath that gives a “mouth smell” and lets you better discern the aroma at the back of the throat. After your first taste and initial reflection on flavor, take another sip and deeply inhale and exhale; bitters and cocktails can transform after their first contact in your mouth. Once consumed, note the sensations of the aftertaste, also known as the finish. Finally, record notes describing the taste, aroma, intensity, aftertaste, and any other observations from your sensory experience.
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Do you ever feel like the first sip or taste is the most intense? There is science to support that hunch. With time and exposure, several things are happening in the drink and in your mouth.
We experience a phenomenon called “taste adaptation,” where the perception of a taste or smell gradually declines with exposure. Meanwhile, in your glass, the cocktail is transforming as well. As the bitters mix into the drink, the effects of solubility and temperature from the melting ice can change the physical chemistry of many volatile compounds, transforming their qualities as well as their potency and diluting the flavors of the cocktail. The cooling effect of the drink on your tongue also changes and mutes your perceptions of flavor.
Pay close attention to your initial impressions of the drink, closest to the point in time when everything has been muddled, mixed, shaken, and served.
This activity demonstrates interactions between different flavor compounds using a bottle of readily available highly bitter-tasting bitters and a few pinches of salt and sugar Rate the intensity of taste on a scale from one to five, with one being the least intense taste.
- Place a drop of bitters on the center of your tongue and swish it around with saliva for 5 seconds. Record the intensity of taste that you perceive after 5 seconds on a scale of one to five.
- Place a small pinch of salt on the center of your tongue and swish it around with saliva for 5 seconds. Record the intensity of taste that you perceive after 5 seconds on a scale of one to five.
- Place another drop of bitters on one side of your tongue and a small pinch of salt on the other side. Close your mouth for 5 seconds while you perceive the taste and intensity of the two sensations. Record the intensity of each.
- Now place a drop of bitters and a pinch of salt together on the center of your tongue. Be sure to use the same quantities as before. Record the intensity of each taste after 5 seconds on the scale of one to five.
- What do you notice about the quality and intensity of the bitterness and saltiness during each tasting experience? Did it matter where the bitters and salt were placed on your tongue?
- Eat an unsalted cracker to clear your palate, followed by drinking some water.
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92 in the Shade Recipe
Mexico generally gets credit for chili pepper origins, but some species of domesticated Capsicum came from the Amazon, namely the exceedingly pungent varieties of habanero. The name itself, habanero, and the lack of a Mayan name suggest it arrived via Cuba.
92 in the Shade
- 1½ oz (45 ml) Habanero Cachaça (see below)
- 1 oz (30 ml) unsweetened coconut milk
- ¾ oz
- (20 ml) pineapple juice
- ½ oz (15 ml) lime juice
- ½ oz (15 ml) Simple Syrup
- 1 dash Raisin in the Sun Bitters or Chicha Morada Bitters
- Pineapple (for garnish)
- Habanero Cachaça: Determine how much you want to make, given 1 ½ oz are all that's needed per drink. With a spoon or pestle, press to muddle (mash) ¼ habanero, including seeds, for every 5 oz (150 ml) cachaça in a metal shaker cup. Let sit for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on desired pungency (think of 2 minutes as five-stars spicy).
- Method: In a shaker, combine all the ingredients except the bitters and then add ice. Shake and strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a pineapple wedge and a dash of Raisin in the Sun Bitters. Yields one 4½ oz drink.
Header illustration courtesy of Clare Owen.