A proper cocktail extends beyond the quality of the liquor that’s in it. The flavoring agents are equally if not more important, especially those added in the smallest amounts: bitters.
What is perhaps the first published definition of a cocktail, from The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, reads: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters . . . and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.”
“How cute is that?” proclaims Napa Distillery mixology specialist Britn Jones after reading the definition from a note saved on her phone. The twenty-something enjoys whiskey drinks and knows a thing or two about bitters, an essential ingredient in any proper cocktail featuring the aged brown liquor. She even makes her own. “Bitters are basically comprised of a bittering agent, a flavoring agent, a slew of different herbs and botanicals, and a very, very high-proof alcohol,” she says.
Making bitters is not a simple DIY task. It involves infusing bittering agents like burdock root and other botanicals in a base alcohol (usually grain alcohol), then boiling the mixture down and straining it. Repeat that process a few times over a couple months, and the $20 price tag for a 100 ml bottle of Bob’s bitters doesn’t seem too steep. Plus, Bob’s, from the U.K., makes the recipe from Abbott’s, the original bitters company from the turn of the century which ceased production in the 1950s.
“That’s the original bitters called for in a Manhattan,” says Arthur Hartunian, owner of Napa Distillery.
“Before Prohibition, there was a section of the bar dedicated to bitters,” he says. A reputable bar had a selection of at least 15 different flavors, but Prohibition killed off all but a handful of companies. The familiar Angostura Bitters survived because it was headquartered outside the United States, but changed its recipe three years ago to reduce production costs, says Hartunian, much to the dismay of cocktail aficionados.
Only in recent years have artisanal bitters companies begun to rise again. Hartunian’s retail shop in Napa’s Oxbow Market carries over 300 varieties from around the world.
“Resurgence of American craft spirits, I think, is driving the new cocktail scene,” he says. “That’s raising awareness of what cocktails can be. It’s not about drinking them—it’s about the experience of the drink.”
The walls of eyedropper bottles at Hartunian’s Napa shop can be intimidating, but the tasting bar can help. A couple drops is all it takes to get the sense of what a particular bitter can do to a drink, and they are wildly different. Citrus bitters add a fruity essence; habañero bitters add an eye-popping zing. There are even frankincense bitters for a holiday flavor.
But Hartunian is old-school with his favorite, choosing the ancient Abbott’s recipe as a staple. He’s even cooked with it. “I use bitters in pancake batter,” says Hartunian. “It adds a bit of an herbal flavor to it.”
The fact that it’s an additive that can be used in cooking kept bitters legal during Prohibition. “Add zest and flavor to fruits, fruit salads, jellies, sherbets, etc.,” says Hartunian, reading from a bottle of Abbott’s from the era.