Love it or loath it, bitterness is one of the most potent weapons in the mixologists’ arsenal, but the proper application of this mysterious taste is a skill that can elude even the most competent of bartenders. With a delicate touch, bitterness can add length, depth, and textural intrigue to cocktails, but too often it is applied with a heavy hand, leading to drinks that are unpleasantly dry. But this can very much depend on the drinker.
THE MOST POLARISING OF ALL TASTES
We all have differing preferences when it comes to tastes. Some people like their drinks to be sweet, some prefer theirs sour, but when it comes to bitterness the responses can be far more extreme. There are many more factors at play than just personal preference, hence why it can be so polarising. From an evolutionary perspective, bitterness shouldn’t be pleasant for anyone. We evolved our bitter taste receptors to warn us of harmful toxins in what we are consuming and as such Its function is to make us reject these bitter tasting foods or drinks by triggering an unpleasant taste sensation. But, bitter is the one taste element that we can learn to tolerate and sometimes even love. Generally speaking, our appreciation of bitter foods and drinks increases as we get older. This can be interpreted as our palates ‘maturing’ but is just as much down to our palates, and our subconscious minds, learning that certain bitter tastes aren’t going to kill us.
MY FIRST NEGRONI
I remember my first Negroni like it was yesterday. I was working in a hotel bar In Edinburgh one summer in the early 2000s and we had a group of Americans who were in draining all manner of cocktails like they were going out of fashion. They were having Martini Cocktails, the odd Margarita, but one in particular that seemed to be a firm favourite. I’d never even heard of a Negroni let alone tasted one (they were not a big deal back then), but as my bar manager served the group round after round of this mysterious, crimson concoction my curiosity grew. Upon finishing my shift, I sat at the bar and, thinking I’d see what all the fuss was about, ordered myself my first ever Negroni. I took one sip and immediately spat it out all over counter. I honestly, hand on heart, thought I was being pranked, that this was a joke, that nobody could drink something that simultaneously tasted of sand, dust, and pain. After being assured that this was a bona fide cocktail (I had to be shown the recipe in the copy of the Difford’s Guide we kept behind the bar to be sure) I had another sip, followed by another, and then promptly ordered my second Negroni. This was my body’s evolutionary response to bitterness in hyper speed. Initially, I interpreted the bitter taste as poison so my body rejected it as an act of self-preservation. As I became more assured that it wouldn’t in fact kill me, I started to become aware of the other tastes, flavours, and textures of the drink. The sugary sweetness, the dry tannins, the herbaceous botanicals, and the tingle of citrus oils all became apparent as my initial single-minded focus on the bitterness subsided. In the space of a few minutes, I had gone from believing I was being murdered to finding my new favourite drink; it’s mad how the human body works.
THE FLAVOUR LENGTHENER
I think the reason I was, at first, so repulsed by the Negroni was due to the length of time its initial bitter taste lasted on my palate. Conversely, a big reason I now love them so much is how long their flavour lingers. This perfectly showcases how bitter tastes work in cocktails. Due to the importance our evolution put on rejecting toxic substances, our taste buds can pick up bitterness in the lowest concentration of any taste elements. Alongside this, as an extra precaution, the taste sensation lasts on the palate for far longer than, say, sweetness or sourness. So, when we have bitter taste molecules that combine with aromatic flavour molecules, the result is that the flavours last for much longer than they would alone. That is, of course, as long as they have a flavour carrier working in conjunction. And we all know what the best flavour carrier is…
BITTER AND SWEET
Bitterness in isolation is distinctly unpleasant for pretty much everyone, it is when we combine it with other tastes that begins to work its magic. The reason that the Negroni works so well is that, even though we would very rarely categorise it as such, it is actually a surprisingly sweet drink. A classic recipe can contain anywhere from 10 to 12 grams of sugar depending on the vermouth employed, that’s more than a Daiquiri and double that of a standard Old Fashioned. Much like acidity, to truly appreciate the flavours of bitter ingredients we must combine them with sugars, otherwise we would just be overpowered by bitterness. As with the combination of all taste elements, they have a reductive capacity on each other, so the sweetness will reduce our bodies capacity to perceive the bitterness while still allowing it to serve its function in flavour carrying, while in turn the bitterness will taper the sweetness but not inhibit its capacity as a flavour carrier. A perfect example of this is the Espresso Martini. Without the requisite amount of sugar, the bitterness of the coffee can dominate and lead to a dry and flavourless mix, but when we get the ratios just right, suddenly the rich coffee character shines through and the bitterness is tapered back.
BITTER AND SALT
The most interesting reaction of taste elements occurs when we combine bitterness with salt. Salt has the uncanny ability to block our bodies perception of bitterness far more than any other taste, in some cases nullifying it completely. This can be a wonderful hack for tailoring specific drinks to suit a customer’s palate, by keeping a dasher bottle of saline solution (I use a 10:1 water to sea salt ratio) on your station you can reduce the bitterness of some drinks significantly by adding a few drops to your recipe.
BITTER VERSUS ASTRINGENT
An important distinction to make is the difference between bitterness and astringency, as while the two are very similar, and sometimes difficult to tell apart, they are actually different sensations. Bitterness, being a taste element, is only detectable on our taste buds. Astringency on the other hand is classed as a trigeminal sensation and is characterised by a mouth puckering dryness. Ingredients can be both bitter and astringent but knowing the difference between the two sensations is important as when there is too much of both in your drinks it can become the overriding feature.
BEST PRACTICE FOR BITTER INGREDIENTS
There is a big difference between bitter cocktails and cocktails that contain bitter ingredients. When used correctly, and in the right proportions, the bitterness of these elements should not be dominant, or in some cases even perceivable, it should be balanced. bitter ingredients should be used with a delicate touch, giving their flavour while simultaneously serving their primary function of lengthening the flavours of the other ingredients.
The most familiar bitter ingredients we use on the bar are cocktail bitters. Initially designed to be a medicine for tropical stomach ailments, ‘bitters’ – as they are more commonly called – are a blend of herbs, spices, roots, and barks, infused in high strength alcohol to create an concentrated tincture. They have been an ever -present cocktail ingredient since the dawn of time, but in recent years there has been an explosion of new brands and flavour profiles giving far more options for modern bartenders. Bitters can be categorised into two clear camps: aromatic and flavoured. Aromatic bitters, like Angostura, are richer, deeper, and have a combination of many different bitter ingredients all contributing to a unique flavour profile. While they are versatile and can be used in all styles of cocktail – from Old Fashioneds to Sours and almost everything in between – I find they work best when used with more robust, aged spirits as these do not allow the bitters to overpower the cocktail. When mixed with whiskies or dark rums, the flavours of aromatic bitters blend perfectly with the cocktail’s characteristics but act primarily as a flavour lengthener without dominating. Flavoured bitters, such as orange or peach, generally contain fewer botanical ingredients but will have a pronounced flavour indicative of one or maybe two of their core components. Their bitterness will usually come from certain roots or barks, such as the intensely bitter quassia bark, that contribute little to the end flavour but form a base bitterness allowing for the hero flavours to shine through. Flavoured bitters work best when they add their unique character to the drinks while providing a bitterness that extends the other flavours in equal measure. Whether it is aromatic or flavoured bitters you are using, less is more. While there are exceptions to the rule (Giuseppe Gonzales’s seminal Trinidad Sour, that calls for a whopping 45ml of Angostura bitters, is one that springs to mind) in most cases 1ml or 2ml of bitters will be enough to have the desired effect in whatever you are making.
PEELS AND PITHS
Another fabulous source of bitterness can be found in the skins of citrus fruit. As we all know, the peels of the fruit are packed full of flavoursome and aromatic citrus oils that can add a wonderful accent when expressed over the top of a cocktail, but there’s also a huge amount of bitterness trapped in the pith (the white area in between the coloured skin and the flesh of the fruit) that more often than not is discarded. My favourite use for this is to add a bar spoon of finely grated lime zest, taking both the skin and the pith off the fruit, and add it into a Daiquiri just before shaking. The oils turbo-charge the lime flavour and the bitterness from the pith helps lengthen the overall profile.
Much like citrus oils, Tannins are both bitter and astringent, meaning they trigger our bitter taste receptors and contribute a trigeminal sensation of dryness. We most commonly associate tannins with either wines or spirits that have been aged in oak but in fact they can be found in many different fruits – such as green apples and grapes – herbs, spices, and especially in teas. Teas are a wonderful source of bitterness as there are so many different flavours to choose from, nearly all of which will deliver a pleasant, dry bitterness.
BOTANICALS AND THE WONDERFUL FOLK AT SEED LIBRARY
One of the best sources of natural bitterness can be found in the roots, seeds, stems, and flowers of plants that we refer to as botanicals. While distillers have known how to harness the qualities of botanicals for centuries, this knowledge has yet to break into bartending world, but one venue that is pushing the boundaries in this field is Seed Library, in Shoreditch, London, the latest venue from the magnificent Ryan Chetiyawardana, a.k.a. Mr Lyan La’Mel Clarke, who has previously worked for the Lyan Group at Super Lyan and is the Floor Manager at Seed Library describes their approach as follows.
“We like to look at our botanicals as alternative flavour sources. One of the reasons they are not commonplace in cocktail bars is that many of the ingredients we work with require a specialist technique or process to coax the flavour out of them. When tasted in isolation, many barks, roots, or seeds can have an unappealing, bitter profile which can put bartenders off. But, when treated with a little care and attention, they can yield flavours like nothing else."
One of their stand-out serves is the Red Dandelion Negroni, which uses a home-made bitter red berry wine flavoured with red dandelion root as its main bitter component. The raw red dandelion root is intensely bitter and not particularly palatable, but the process employed by the Seed Library team reveals an incredibly floral, nutty, and almost coffee like character that is completely unique. If you find yourself in the East End of London anytime soon, I highly recommend giving them a visit. Next time round we’re going to finish off this series by exploring texture, looking at how by employing a few simple tricks and techniques we can augment the mouthfeel and help elevate your drinks to new levels. ———— The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Freepour.