The Case for Bitters Maximalism
Plus! Bitters minimalism, and a Negroni variation built to showcase an unusual bottle of bitters.
I am a bitters maximalist.
I will purchase nearly any bottle of unusual dasher-bottle bitters if I find it in a recipe that looks interesting, or if I can possibly imagine using it in an intriguing way. Fig and Cinnamon Bitters? Yes, obviously. Olive Bitters? Why not. Artificially flavored tobacco bitters? Of course. Dandelion and Burdock Bitters? I’m not even completely sure what that tastes like — Dandelion, I guess? — but I have a bottle anyway. Often these are late-night impulse buys. I recently ordered a bottle of hibiscus-lavender-oak bitters, after seeing it listed in a single cocktail. The bottle was dubbed Bitterless Marriage. (In order to keep it that way, please do not tell my wife).
Currently, I have somewhere between 80 and 90 bottles of bitters, depending on whether you count duplicates and blends. You could reasonably describe my bitters-buying habit as an obsession. You might think this is insane. Fair enough.
But as I argued in last week’s newsletter on the Old Fashioned, effective use of bitters can be the key to improving even the simplest of cocktails. So before you dismiss my maximalist approach to the category as foolish or impractical for normie cocktailians, I want to make the case that you, the home bartending enthusiast, should also embrace bitters maximalism.
I will admit up front that this argument will not convince everyone. So after I make my case for maximalism, I’ll outline a more minimalist strategy, with a handful of recommended bottles. But I do think that there are practical, non-obsessive reasons for at-home cocktail enthusiasts own a wide variety of bitters with unusual profiles or fewer obvious use cases.
Finally, we’ll look at a cocktail created at the dawn of the cocktail renaissance specifically to showcase a then-weird bottle of bitters. It involves Cynar, of course.
Mo’ Bitters, Mo’ Flavors
In the early days of the cocktail renaissance — the late 1990s and early 2000s — bitters could be hard to come by. It was difficult to order bitters online. Anything other than Angostura Aromatic bitters was considered exotic. Read accounts of early cocktail geeks, and you will encounter stories of people being desperate to find even a single brand of orange bitters.
Today, there are dozens of obscure brands and flavors available at fine liquor stores — and if your liquor store doesn’t have them, you can order many brands online. Angostura is not the only aromatic bitters producer in the game, and there’s a healthy market for ever-more-obscure expressions of orange bitters. I, for example, have close to a dozen different brands of orange bitters on my shelf. Heck, I have two different brands of grapefruit bitters.