By Stef Schwalb
Cocktails. Decadent, delicious, and we can’t imagine life without them. Whether simple or complex, they tantalize our taste buds and satiate our senses. Sometimes it’s the smallest ingredient that packs the biggest punch in mixology and takes our drinks to the level lusciousness that we just love. Case in point: bitters. Simply put, they are aromatic, alcoholic beverages created with flavoring agents such as herbs, fruits or roots, which display bitter or bittersweet characteristics. They add that extra tang and/or smoothness to your drink that enhances it in just the right way to take it from delectable to divine. There are numerous classic cocktails that incorporate bitters as an integral ingredient (think Manhattans and orange bitters). Avery Glasser of Bittermens offered us some insight into this essential element.
“Basically, it’s all about flavor,” he says. “If you’re baking a pie, you wouldn’t just throw any random spice in the mix unless you taste them first, would you? It’s the same with bitters. If you’re working with dark spirits (bourbon, aged rum) in a sweeter drink, then a bitter with dark or complex notes pairs well (e.g.: Bittermens Xocolatl Mole™ Bitters uses cacao nibs and cinnamon in the flavor profile). If you’re working with clear spirits (gin) in a crisp, effervescent drink (like a gin and tonic) then a sharp citrus bitter may be more fitting (e.g.: Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters).” The trick to finding that perfect fit? Taste everything, adds Avery, to see if the flavors feel like they work together.
As bitter creators, Avery and the Bittermens team find innovation right from the front lines (so to speak). “We tend to draw inspiration from bartenders, instead of focusing on trends or cuisines,” he reveals, “we talk to bartenders all over the world to find out what they’re working on for cocktails and try to figure out what flavors they’re missing in their arsenal. Many times they come to us asking if we have an idea on what a cocktail is missing or ask if we could solve a problem that they’ve been working on flavor-wise.”
How can you find inspiring flavors? To start, head down to Amor y Amargo (Love and Bitters) in the East Village. This bitters tasting room is the first bar in the Big Apple to focus solely on the global exploration of bitters. Customers can sample different bitters from around the world here, a concept Bittermens helped develop. They also run the program there.
“It’s basically an outpost for us to help get people thinking about how bitterness works in cocktails,” says Avery. “The story is pretty simple. Amor y Amargo used to be a Cuban sandwich shop that served as a disguised entrance to Cienfuegos, a bar/restaurant above it. We were there with our friend who was managing the beverage program for Cienfuegos and El Cobre, another bar connected to the same kitchen (now closed). The owner asked what he should do with the space. We recommended a cocktail supply shop. He said that they had a liquor license, so we said to add in a selection of amari (Italian bitter liqueurs) and a small menu of cocktails that featured bitters. We gave him the idea basically because it sounded like it could become a bar where we could drink the sort of drinks we liked and also maybe have another venue to sell our bitters. We never thought that we would be involved with whatever he did with the bar. He called a few days later and asked us to put together a proposal to run the space.” And the rest is history.