Liquor 101: Bitters, with special guests Embitterment DC
We’re spirits people. Or maybe we’re liqueur people. Either way, it’s always been the big bottles of liquor that capture our attention first. But recently, through the influence of people like the guys at Embitterment (fellow Union Kitchen members), we’ve gained a new appreciation for the contributions things in small bottles can make to a great cocktail.
We feel like Columbus ‘discovering’ America, even though the place was full of people who’d already been there forever. Has anyone heard of this thing called an Old Fashioned? Hot take: it’s pretty good.
We’ve decided it’s time to end our ignorance about bitters and what they can do for a cocktail; so we invited Embitterment to catch us up to speed. Check out their blog, follow them (FB, gramn‘, tweeting), and if you’re in DC/Maryland/Virgina, buy their bitters.
R&J: Hi Embitterment, thanks for being our guest here on Roberts and June. So you make bitters. Let’s start with a basic question, what are bitters?
Embitterment: Bitters are a very specific type of flavor extract that are used to add depth and…well, bitterness to cocktails and other beverages.
They began as home-brewed medicines and dietary supplements back in the 1800s (and long, long before that), then made their way into apothecary stores, and were even peddled by roving salesmen as “Miracle Remedies” for everything from bad breath to cancer. Many of the ingredients in bitters do actually have health benefits, especially the bitter roots and herbs from which they derive their name, but in general, they can’t cure a virus or infection. Thus, the folks who got caught pawning them off on gullible buyers were labeled “snake oil salesmen” and promptly asked to leave, often not politely.
After getting tarred and feathered or run out of town on a rail, the next logical thing to do is find yourself a stiff drink, which is when bitters started working their way into the fancy Pre-Prohibition cocktail recipe books penned by the celebrity bartenders of the area. Unfortunately, during Prohibition, all but a few commercial bitters companies went out of business, but in the past decade, they have enjoyed an explosion of renewed interest and experimentation by emerging craft bitters producers like ourselves.
R&J: Why do we still use bitters?
E: We still use bitters because they taste awesome. Bitterness is perhaps the most enigmatic taste in that we are naturally programmed to dislike bitter foods…and yet bitterness complements and activates many of the other flavors we so enjoy. Bitters are a one-stop flavor burst in a bottle that allow you to add flair to any drink with just a few drops.
R&J: Obviously, if people go to the store they should buy your bitters, but in general what should buyers be looking for when purchasing bitters and assessing quality?
E: One of our major selling points is that we don’t add any unnatural ingredients to our bitters. Unlike some of the major brands who use additives like artificial dyes and caramel coloring, we leave all that junk out and let our natural ingredients do the talking.
It’s also worth having a drink or two in mind when you go looking for bitters because there are so many flavors and blends to choose from.
For beginners, we recommend a bottle of aromatic bitters and a bottle of orange bitters. Those two flavors have a huge array of applications and can be put to use in the largest number of classic cocktails. From there, you can branch out just about anywhere your taste buds lead you. The variety is staggering.
R&J: How did you guys decide of all things to specifically make bitters, as opposed to, say whiskey? What’s it been like being a small business owner?
E: Well, when you look at all the distilleries popping up around the Mid-Atlantic, you’ll notice that all of them make multiple types of products, and that takes a lot of effort and a lot of lost sleep. We decided to specialize–make one type of product that everybody needs and likes, and make it better than our big retail competitors.
During the process of researching, testing, and selling our bitters, we’ve had the chance to meet so many cool bartenders, distillers, and industry leaders. Everyone is eager to learn, to compare notes, and to offer a toast. and we are proud of the specialized role we play within this region’s craft beverage scene.
R&J: Do you have a favorite bitters flavor? How do you use it?
E: As tempting as it is sometimes, we don’t play favorites. All of our flavors go through months of research and development (read: taste testing!) before we release them to our customers. We’ll put our flavors proudly up against any of the major brands. Currently, we carry Aromatic, Orange, Lavender, and Chocolate bitters. Here are some of our favorite pairings:
R&J: Lastly, any unconventional uses of bitters we should try?
Yeah! We have a sampling of food recipes on our site, but some popular ways to use bitters outside of cocktails would be in savory foods, like gravy, rice, or salad dressing, or in sweet foods, like cookies or frostings. Also, if you want to smell like orange or lavender, for example, you can apply a dab of our bitters just like you would perfume or cologne.
On the health side of things, bitters have been shown to stimulate digestion, settle upset stomachs, help speed away hangovers, and generally put a healthy pep in your step. Take a shot of bitters every day, and you can’t go wrong!