Most people I know have normal liquor cabinets: a bottle of gin, a bottle of rum and so on. We, on the other hand, usually have a bottle or two of rye or bourbon and more than a dozen bottles of bitters. We don’t actually drink bitters very often. Rather, I tend to buy them obsessively. Every time I try a new one in a bar or (better yet) on a vacation to a distant land, I pick up a bottle.
I should specify I’m not talking about aromatic bitters, such as Angostura, that you add by the dash to cocktails (though we have a fair number of those as well). Instead, I’m talking about potable bitters: strange, dark distillations of barks and berries, snips and snails and puppy dog tails. Witch’s brews that people traditionally sip from dainty little cut crystal glasses and brace themselves for the onslaught of throat-clenching spice and horror.
Old European bitters makers boast of 43 or 76 secret ingredients that go into these dark concoctions, usually a mixture of local wild herbs and familiar Spice Route spices like ginger, ginseng, angelica, cinnamon and anise.
The best-known potable bitter in the United States must surely be Jagermeister. This German bitters tastes a fair bit sweeter than others, which is why it goes down like a dare but ends up like a lollipop, perfect for college kids just learning to drink.
But others are far less friendly. I remember trying something called Zwack Unicum in Hungary. It came in a round bottle with a yellow cross on it, and one sip of it made me feel like I had stumbled into a bar for Dementors where all joy had been sucked from the universe. Some varieties of Italian amaro can make you pucker and clench the back of your throat — particularly the downright diabolical concoction called Fernet Branca.
This is a natural reaction. The taste buds that discern bitterness lie along the sides and back of the tongue like a kind of natural Checkpoint Charlie. Poisons that occur naturally in plants are bitter, so when we experience this primary taste, the gates come crashing down, passage denied.
This raises the question: Why have people everywhere made beverages from all the plant extracts that don’t actually kill you but just taste like they do?
On one level, there’s a component of folk medicine. Wherever people knock back drams of brown ick, they claim they do it for their health. Many of those dried twigs and berries supposedly ward off colds, adjust the humors and — most importantly — aid digestion. A little sip at the end of a big meal is supposed to settle your stomach.
I think, also, people convince themselves that bitters taste good. Many creative bartenders these days combine potable bitters with juices, spirits and fortified wines in new craft cocktails that are neither too sweet nor too sour nor too alcoholic, but balanced in an almost insinuating way. Not only does the bitterness mitigate the sugar of juices and mixers, but the sweetness helps you to better taste the zing of spice in the bitters.
Cocktail creation first got me interested in potable bitters. But the variety of bottles increased beyond my cocktail-making skills.
However, I’ve been reconsidering these bitters lately. A few weeks ago my wife and I spent a few days in Copenhagen, where people in January understandably eat early. You do start thinking about dinner not long after the sun goes down around 4 p.m.
So we’d often find ourselves back in the hotel on the early side and decide to have a nightcap in the lobby bar. Once, when I was feeling a little overfed, I figured a little bitters might do me good and espied a bottle of Gammel Dansk Bitter Dram behind the bar.
“Would it be strange to ask for a bitters and a beer?” I asked the bartender. “No, ” he chuckled, “that’s a very Danish thing to do.” Soon I had a pint of brown ale and a tiny, delicate glass of bitters.
I grimaced at each sip of the latter, even as I appreciated its minty, spicy sparkle. I later would find out that Gammel Dansk is matured with about 30 kinds of herbs, spices and flowers. Among the main ingredients are rowan berries (sometimes called mountain ash berries), which are reputed to aid digestion and liver function. This liquor did have a weirdly calming effect on my stomach, and as I drank it I realized I loved the flavor as much as I hated it. When it got to be too much, I took a slug of beer.
Naturally, I brought a bottle of Gammel Dansk home to add to the collection. But I also rooted around in the closet of useless inherited glassware and discovered some nice little liqueur glasses. I think I’m ready to try all my bitters on their own, come what may.
-by John Kessler for the Food & More blog