The bitters truth: Bartender secrets you can use at home

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 11/25/2013

The secret behind some of the best cocktails in town lies in a dash of boutique bitters. Do try this at home.

Dashfire, based in the Twin Cities, produces two flavors of bitters.
Matt Gillmer

Even a perfect Thanksgiving dinner isn’t as sumptuous without a little seasoning. The same could be said for the cocktail you sip before the meal.

As the cocktail world increasingly takes a culinary approach to drinkmaking, bartenders are flavoring their liquid dishes with an expanding arsenal of boutique bitters — a potent, bittersweet additive.

“Bitters are like the salt and pepper of cocktails,” said Robb Jones, bar manager at Saffron in downtown Minneapolis. “They’re underlying, and they’re going to bring out everything else that’s good about a cocktail.”

There’s nothing ho-hum about the invigorating herb-and-spice medley of Angostura bitters, which dates to the 1820s, or the Sazerac staple Peychaud’s. But new and unusual varieties are infiltrating cocktail menus and home bars.

Led by Bittercube, which Jones credits with setting a high bar for Midwestern craft bitters, three local companies are producing adventurous flavors that can be used to augment classic recipes. “It’s getting so specific now that there’s probably bitters for every single flavoring agent you could ever think of putting in a cocktail,” Jones said.

While Bittercube, which was founded by Eat Street Social’s Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz in 2009, technically manufactures its dynamic bitters in Wisconsin, wholly Twin Cities-based companies Dashfire and Easy & Oskey (which makes DIY home-bitters kits) came to market this year.

Dashfire launched with two flavors, the exotic spice-meshing Mr. Lee’s Ancient Chinese Secret and a more traditional orange bitters, which Jones uses in his autumnally fruity Old Orchard. Rather than using a neutral grain spirit like Everclear or vodka as the base for his barrel-aged orange bitters, Dashfire founder Lee Egbert opts for over-proof bourbon. “I don’t know about you, but the idea of putting vodka in my Manhattan is crazy talk,” said Egbert, who also is a partner in startup distillery 11 Wells.

In a side-by-side with the more ubiquitous Fee Brothers West Indian orange bitters, Egbert’s blend has a deeper, zestier character.

Easy & Oskey also offers an orange bitters in its lineup, which includes cacao, habanero, cherry vanilla and a create-your-own “naked” flavor (just add ¼ cup of the desired ingredient). Owners Erik “Easy” Eastman and Dan Oskey, the behind-the-stick talent at St. Paul’s Strip Club Meat & Fish, say each can be made in 10 to 15 minutes, but they require two to six weeks to rest and extract the flavors before being used. Most of the recipes are based on Oskey’s Strip Club concoctions, like the masterfully fiery habanero bitters in his hot-selling Cobra Kai.

“On a daily basis I lean on [bitters], because I like to have that extra way of spicing up your drink,” Oskey said. “Imagine making carbonara without garlic, you know? You need that spice.”

A typical recipe might call for only a dash or two (or up to seven drops) of bitters, but it can have a profound effect on the drink. The acerbic enhancers are often added as ingredients, shaken or stirred with the cocktail, or as a garnish for aroma — especially with egg drinks, Jones suggests.

“You taste a lot with your sense of smell, so that is really an important step in building a really nice cocktail,” Eastman notes.

Of course, nothing’s carved in stone. Take Parlour’s innovative Ango Flip — an absolute must-try on its fall menu. The North Loop cocktail bar uses the classic Angostura bitters as a base with a luscious amaro cream, Ramozotti amaro and (gulp) a whole egg.

Among the bounty of specialty bitters available — which includes such out-of-state brands as Bitter Truth, Bittermens, Bar Code and Gaz Regan’s famous orange bitters — Jones has found some go-to pairings. With rum drinks he likes Bittercube’s Jamaica No. 2 or Dashfire’s Mr. Lee’s. Gin? A solid orange bitters or Bittercube’s chamomile-hinted Bolivar — which also slides into Jones’ fall-attuned pear Sidecar.

Admittedly, bitters are often the last thing Jones thinks about when making a new drink. But the spirit-mixing maestro says they almost always take their place.

“Five drops, all of a sudden it changes everything,” he said.