Friday 28 October 2011

What use are "single varietal" bitters?

Most of us probably have a bottle of Angostura bitters somewhere: it’s one of those things, like Tabasco, that never seems to get finished. But such is the strength of the cocktail revolution going on at the moment that all manner of other bitters are being unleashed on to the market, ranging from the primordial Peychaud’s bitters, recreations of ancient recipes such as celery bitters and Jerry Thomas’s favourite Boker’s bitters, to all manner of fruit and veg flavours (grapefruit, rhubarb, cranberry, plum…) and oddities like chocolate bitters.

Bitters are the granddaddies of the cocktail world. Originally medicinal infusions of bitter herbs, roots and barks, it’s likely that we started blending them with booze to make the medicine easier to take, then developed a taste for it. The original definition of a cocktail was specifically a spirit augmented by any or all of bitters, sugar and water. Any other kind of mixed drink fell under a different name. Now the term “bitters” is used for any concentrated flavoured tincture a dash or two of which might be used to deepen a cocktail’s flavour or add aromatic notes.

Master of Malt have thrown their hat into the ring with a range of “single varietal” (a term taken from the wine world, I assume) bitters—each featuring just one flavouring ingredient, infused in vodka, bourbon or rum. The range includes sour cherry, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, juniper (a kind of “gin concentrate”—add a few drops to vodka, perhaps, and voila?), cardamom, clove, coriander, fennel, angelica, cocoa, coffee, liquorice, sweet orange, gentian, curaçao (bitter orange), chilli (both smoked chipotle and volcanic naga) and frankincense. They also do their own blended products, such as their whisky-barrel aged bitters and a forthcoming Christmas bitters.

Of course the first thing that sprang to mind with the single varietal ones was—is this any better than just using the ingredient itself? For example, why use cumin bitters rather than just a pinch of cumin? I tried using just such an ingredient in one of the North African inspired drinks at the A Night in Casablanca event that the Candlelight Club held in August:

Djinn Fizz
2 shots gin
1 shot lemon juice
½ shot crème de menthe blanche
½ shot sugar syrup
Pinch of cumin/few drops of cumin bitters
2 shots soda water
Shake first five ingredients, strain into a glass and add soda. Garnish with fresh mint.

The cumin is by no means essential but in moderation it is quite interesting, adding a flavour that is fresh but quite savoury. I tried this with both ground cumin and cumin bitters and the result is pretty much the same, though you need more of the bitters than you might think.

Or course the big difference is that the bitters are liquid and therefore blend easily. Spices as a rule do not dissolve as such: I don’t know what actually happens to the cumin in the Djinn Fizz, but in the following cocktail—created for the Candlelight Club’s Boardwalk Empire Season 2 launch party—I had trouble with the ground cinnamon:

Applejack Rabbit
1½ shots Laird’s Applejack
½ shot Aperol
½ shot maple syrup
¾ shot lemon juice
1 shot orange juice
Pinch of cinnamon/few drops of cinnamon bitters
Apple slice to garnish
Shake and strain into an ice-filled highball. Garnish with a slice of apple. An old cocktail from the 1930s, with added Aperol (something that currently vies with tea as the cocktail ingredient du jour).

It tasted right, but the actual particles of cinnamon are quite visible and quickly sink to the bottom. I also noticed that if you left the cocktail for a while the cinnamon flavour intensifies, as the ground bark spends more time infusing. On the night the bar staff mostly just sprinkled the cinnamon on the top instead. By contrast, the Master of Malt Cinnamon Bitters avoids this problem altogether.

Similarly, another cocktail from our Moroccan night (originally created by Will Sprunt for our Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and here just wheeled out again under a different name because it went so well with the theme) originally used cardamom seeds:

Rose Martini (aka Queen of Hearts)
2 shots gin
¾ shot dry vermouth
½ shot rose syrup

The seeds from a cardamom pod/few drops of cardamom bitters
Lemon twist 

Shake cardamom, gin, syrup and vermouth together, and strain into a martini glass. Finish with lemon peel. This is a cracking cocktail that tastes like alcoholic Turkish Delight.

First of all I found that you really need to crush the seeds with a muddler to get any flavour out in the short time that you are shaking. But actually splitting a cardamom pod is pretty fiddly and not really something you want to be doing in a busy bar environment. In this example, using 5–6 drops of the cardamom bitters was a godsend, adding the desired flavour quickly and without any solid residue to worry about.

Then you have something like the Master of Malt Frankincense Bitters. Most of us probably don’t have lumps of frankincense knocking around the house, so if that is the flavour you are after then this is clearly a good way to go. Frankincense (a resin tapped from the Boswellia sacra tree) is a hard flavour to describe, being a bit like cinnamon but less overtly woody. If you’ve ever done any soldering (solder includes resin) the smell of frankincense will be familiar. I plan to try using the bitters in a Christmas cocktail called Gold, Frankincense and Byrrh (using Goldschläger or Goldwasser, Byrrh and Frankincense Bitters, perhaps with a gin base)—expect a report in a month or so as to whether this has any merits beyond a play on words.

Another possibility is to play with gin by using the coriander, cinnamon, angelica or cardamom bitters (all common enough gin botanicals) to push your gin’s flavour balance one way or another. Fennel and clove too, now I come to think of it. Of course these are infusions rather than distillations, so things like the gentian bitters (which I have not tried yet) will presumably be indeed very bitter (like Peychaud’s or Angostura bitters, which contain it), compared, say, to Ian Hart’s Sacred range of single-botanical distillates, in which the distillation process removes all bitterness from botanicals such as gentian, hop or wormwood.

Check out the full range of Master of Malt bitters here.

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