By Brian Murphy, Foodable Industry Expert
Guests continue to appreciate and look for bitter flavors. While some trends level off a bit, like the kale craze, some things continue to strengthen their hold on guests’ taste buds like IPA beers and the use of bitters behind the bar. West Coast, super-hopped beers may have helped the use of bitters become more common in cocktails, and some beers that get way up in IBUs could be of use in some cocktails! No matter what aided in the overall appreciation of bitter, the improvement of your beverage program can be taken to new depths by embracing the bitter and taking bitters to new places.
Bitters offer depth in cocktail making. Something to counter the sweetness, complement the acidity, and take cocktails to places they couldn’t otherwise go. They help all the flavors of the alcohol and accompaniments line up taste-wise, and all with a few drops. Bitters can aid in digestion, and depending on the type, provide a variety of health benefits. Crafted well, a cocktail containing bitters should be cohesive yet showcase the bitters’ complexity. Picked up on the nose as your guests go to take a sip, but complexities abound as they follow through. Some bitters linger well after the sip has been swallowed, and those lasting notes are where some aromatic bitters can get guests talking.
The resurgence of craft cocktails has caused the bitter market to boom, and while some bars are looking more like an apothecary, some have resisted. The standby, Angostura or Peychaud’s, are fine products, and deserve a place behind the bar, but the world of bitter can be taken to so many other places, making you stand out. Should your beverage program be late to the bitter party, fear not, as there are many ways to get your guests what they want. There is no shortage of craft bitters for sale, so a conversation with your beverage distributors or some research online can solve the sourcing issues. Use caution of being too formulaic and doing what everyone else is doing, as this could put a sour taste in the bitter-loving guests’ mouth.
Exploring the world of bitters and the infinite number of combinations is both exciting and daunting. There is no need for an arsenal of bitters in the bar unless your beverage program can support it. Starting small with an updated version of a classic, updated with a top shelf bottle and a custom batch of bitters, can be marketed in a variety of ways and allow you to test the bitter waters. Explore bitter recipes that won’t make you source a wide variety of ingredients if you want to keep it simple. Consider whether you will be adding the bitter depth to non-alcoholic drinks or keep them for cocktails. Non-alcoholic bitters won’t have the same shelf life of those made with high-proof alcohol, but food-grade vegetable glycerin is an option.
Bitter is Better Together
Get your chef and bartenders together to devise a plan and to discuss flavors. Find spices and ingredients that are already on hand or easy to source to try an in-house bitter blend. Grapefruit, black pepper, citrus zests, chile peppers, cacao nibs, celery or celery seeds, star anise, or cardamom can all be worked into different versions of bitters.
You will need to source some bitter roots or bark, like sarsaparilla or Devil’s Club root, to use for the wood element, and then you can potentially put together a contending, complimentary batch with spices found in the kitchen. Get creative and modify the spices, as well. Use the cardamom pods, but make them deeper and darker by toasting them or torching them.
A few mason jars, copious notes for each batch, and a bottle of 100-plus-proof alcohol, and you are about 10-20 days away from straining and experimentation.
Spending some time coming up with a handful of bitters made in-house can give a tremendous return on the investment. Your cocktails can be increased to super-premium tier, helping check averages and a new focus on your beverage program at the same time.