In the Old West, snake oil salesmen wandered the plains, peddling their wares to unsuspecting folk. A good deal of their business was in health-giving tonics, which were little more than a mixture of various herbs, roots and whatever else they could toss in (thus the snake oil). Back then, these concoctions were used as medicine, albeit crude pioneer medicine.
When cocktails, first used as medicinal aides, came along, these tonics were a natural addition and they became known as bitters. Today, bitters are alive and well, but instead of snake oil salesmen hawking their wares, the new peddlers are bartenders. Across L.A., the big trend is house-made bitters, using everything from jalapeños to Earl Grey tea to gentian root.
Why would a bartender take the trouble to make bitters when there are so many selections already bottled on the shelves? Today, cocktails are all about originality and customization. These bitters are not only a way for bartenders to express themselves but also to put a more personal touch on their craft cocktails. Here is just a small sampling of what awaits at bars across town.
5. Gracias Madre
Beverage director Jason Eisner's habanero bitters feature strongly in the the brunch Michelada (California blond ale, lime, tamari, habanero bitters, lemon-jalapeno-basil ice) at Gracias Madre. Eisner describes the bartenders at Gracias Madre as being "obsessed with alchemy." This need to create is one of the reasons he turned to making bitters.
"Most homemade bitters call for an over-proof alcohol of some kind, which functions as a solvent for botanical extracts as well as a preservative," Eisner says. "Typically the alcohol used is a neutral spirit, and often is an over-proof rum or vodka. The alcoholic strength of bitters varies widely across different brands and styles. We use a neutral spirit for our house-made bitters, but it's neither a rum nor a vodka, in order to match flavor profiles and to keep them gluten-free."
4. The Pikey
When bartender Sam Wickham and general manager Eric Shani decided to create an iced tea cocktail for the summer, they turned to the idea of a housemade bitters. "Simply seeping the tea wasn't potent enough," says Shani, "so we made a little elixir. With it we could get a deep flavor and aroma." The result - Earl Grey and Blue Flower bitters - is a unique blend of Earl Grey tea, with its powerful body and bergamot, as well as blue flower, black pepper and lemon peel for balance.
3. Willie Jane
Willie Jane bartender Derrick Bass summarizes the feelings of many bartenders when he says that house-made bitters have very potent, strong flavor profiles, and "just a couple drops completely changes the cocktail. The bitters can also replace souring agents such as lime or orange juice, and give the cocktail an aromatic, boozier flavor."
With the Cook's Garden by HGEL right next door, Bass doesn't have far to look for ideas. However, the limited quantities of ingredients, which change seasonally, allow him to make only small amounts of bitters. From one week to the next, Bass might be mixing up a batch of sour cherry bliss bitters or wasabi bitters.
His technique is relatively standard, taking a single ingredient, letting it sit for a few weeks in a cold, dry place, and shaking it daily. At that point, he adds a bittering agent - dandelion root, gentian root, motherwort - to the liquid extract after straining out whatever herb or ingredient was used, then adding and tasting until it reaches just the right bitterness.
2. Mohawk Bend
Mohawk Bend is known for its beers, but bar director Lauren Reyes doesn't skimp on the cocktails. For her, bitters are a form of personal expression. "Bar chef is a term I've heard thrown around in the mixology world," she says. "When I think of house-made bitters, I can really connect with this title. Creating bitters requires a careful selection of spices, flowers, fruits, herbs and bittering agents to create a balanced and definitive flavor and aroma profile."
Reyes' Chilito bitters are an infusion of whole coriander, clove and a combination of dried peppers, including habanero, jalapeño, serrano and chile de arbol. "The bitters add a different flavor than muddling a fresh green pepper," she says. "It's a way to encompass a wider variety of heat within one ingredient." Currently, she uses them frequently in cocktails that are tequila- or vodka-based.
To feature her jalapeño bitters, Providence bartender Kate Provenza created the Angry Angeleno cocktail, a combination of blanco tequila, Fernet Branca, ginger, lime and jalapeño bitters. Here, she offers her recipes for both the bitters and the drink. The orange bitters, which serve as an ingredient in the jalapeño bitters, can be used on their own to great effect in classic cocktails such as martinis or Manhattans.
Angry Angeleno Cocktail
From: Kate Provenza, Providence
Makes: 1 drink
1 1/2 oz. tequila Ocho Plata
1/2 oz. Fernet Branca
1 ounce lime juice
3/4 oz. ginger syrup
6 to 8 dashes jalapeño bitters (recipes below)
1. Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker.
2. Top with ice and shake until chilled.
3. Strain into a double old-fashioned glass over a large ice cube.
4. Garnish with lime zest.
3 cups Everclear 151 or high-proof vodka
zest from 4 large oranges
½ cup dried orange peel
¼ tsp. coriander
½ tsp. allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick
4 green cardamom pods
½ tsp. gentian root
2 tablespoons simple syrup
1. Combine all the ingredients except the syrup in a Mason jar and seal the jar tightly.
2. Allow to steep at room temperature in a dark place for 2 to 3 weeks, shaking daily.
3. Strain the mixture through a funnel lined with a coffee filter. Repeat this process until the mixture is free of any sediment.
4. Add the simple syrup and gently shake to dissolve.
1 cup overproof rum such as Lemon Hart 151
½ cup orange bitters
1. Slice the jalapeños (use rubber gloves when doing this).
2. Put the overproof rum and jalapeños in a Mason jar and seal.
3. Allow to steep for three days, shaking the mixture daily.
4. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer and add the orange bitters.
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5. Shake gently to combine.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Her book "The 12 Bottle Bar", co-written with David Solmonson, is available on July 29. Email her at email@example.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.