In Brooklyn, where there are classes in artisan pencil-sharpening, it’s not surprising that you can take a bitters tasting class. I took one last week, mostly because I wanted to see what bitters I’d get to taste for less than 20 bucks.
But before we get into that, a word on bitters — the sharp concoction of alcohol infused with herbs and spices that is the defining aspect of a cocktail. Without bitters, you might have a mixed drink, but by definition it ain’t a cocktail. Thankfully, bitters are more than just geek-savant trivia-fodder. They impart a well-made drink with a finishing je ne sais quoi, imbuing it with the aura of a vivifying tonic.
The class, which was held at Brooklyn Brainery and taught by Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour, proceeded with a few short remarks on bitters’ history as patent medicine, onward through Prohibition and the collapse of the bitters industry (basically), and arrived at the recent revival of forgotten recipes with the chi-chi cocktail boom. Exciting stuff.
More exciting though, is puckering your lips around several sorts of bitters. It’s then that you see their magic, which sparkles on your tongue in a drink the way zest does in a salad. It provides that finishing element of exciting flavor that draws everything together.
There are several ways to get to know your bitters. You can drip a splash on the back of your hand and lick it off, but that’s usually too intense to actually be useful. You can do what we did in the tasting class and dash them into seltzer, creating a surprisingly grown-up version of soda. Or, you can make a bunch of the same cocktail base and try it out with different bitters. I endorse the latter, because it requires you to drink several ounces of liquor, and the wise drinker shares.
To proceed with the third option, you need to choose a base spirit. It can be anything, but simplicity gives the highlights of bitters an uncluttered platform on which to play. Using what I had at home (sadly, I was out of bourbon; old fashioneds would be excellent for this), I worked with a pseudo-martini as a base: four parts botanical spirit (Square One Botanical, which is essentially gin sans the juniper) and one part white vermouth. To this I added a lemon twist, but you could easily swap that out — celery bitters would probably pair more appropriately with a briny olive; orange with a brandied cherry.
While you’re mixing your base, taste a teensy bit of each component, then taste the combination of the two. If you, like me, are using a martini base, you’ll note that gin is much improved by a) being fucking cold, and b) having its teeth dulled with a splash of sweetened, herbed wine. With your base stirred (please don't shake your gin), pour sampler-sized servings into some chilled glasses. Dash in the various bitters you’re comparing. Sip sip.
Observe how bitters in the same class counterpoise and show their differing characteristics: of aromatic bitters, Peychaud’s has a slightly more black-peppery spice than Angostura, which is very, very rooty tasting; Scrappy’s aromatic bitters highlights a pithy, barky taste that is present in both Peychaud’s and Angostura, but is in the background. Each of these qualities responds differently in different spirits. You’ll have your own findings to report.
The rest is basically trial and error. There’re some simple techniques and guidelines, but beyond those, if you want to coax sublimity from your glass, you’ve got to know the subtle sides of various boozes and the things used to dilute them.
Remember: this is Science, so don’t fuck it up.