June 18 2013 06:35 PM

Bitters play a crucial role in the cocktail, but bartenders should be careful

drink-da
RX Bitters’ Cherry Apple variety
Photo by Mike Newton

The excesses of the craft-cocktail movement can be as annoying as beer-and-shot reverse-snobbery. Beer out of a can tastes like the can and Jack Daniels tastes like paint thinner mixed with artificially flavored pancake syrup and liquid smoke. Call me elitist, but I don't want to drink cheap corporate booze unless the city's under siege and there's no choice. 

At the same time, the efforts of newer bars throughout San Diego to make every drink a spectacular event has led to a lot of sloppy cocktailing. A habanero-infused cantaloupe vodka flip shaken with coddled egg, salted and crushed edamame syrup and raspberry-fennel bitters and garnished with deep-fried wheatgrass? Thanks, but I'll just have the salad. Everybody needs to chill out and learn how to make a decent classic martini before even trying to make anything else.  

And if you know the history of the martini, you know that to make a classic one, you've got to add a couple dashes of orange bitters. Historically, in fact, the presence of bitters literally defined a drink as a cocktail. Created in the 19th century as tonics with reputed medicinal effects, bitters are essential to many classic drink recipes, which can call for as much as a teaspoon or as few as a couple drops of the intensely aromatic concoctions. 

A byproduct of the craft movement's raising of the literal bar is, in fact, a return to the recognition of bitters as not just an optional flavoring, but an important cocktail ingredient. Sarah Ellis of Jayne's Gastropub says that one misconception about bitters is that they "make a cocktail taste bitter. In truth, the herbal and woody ingredients actually mellow the astringency and intensity of alcohol." 

Bitters need to be understood and respected to be done right: The burgeoning craft-bitters trend puts both great and not-so-great new flavors into the hands of both great and not-so-great bartenders. The danger is creating silly flavors for the sake of originality or splashing yet another ingredient into an already overburdened drink.

It may seem hard to achieve overkill in the preparation of bitters given that the world's first and most popular bitters, Angostura, allegedly contains 47 ingredients (only five people on Earth know this trade secret), but that famous mixture of alcohol, gentian root, herbs and spices—originally developed by a 19th-century German doctor as a tonic—has stood the test of time. Whether any new version of bitters will join the likes of Angostura or Peychaud's remains to be seen. One upstart bitters maker that might achieve bitter longevity is New Orleans-based Bittermens. A few drops of its highly regarded Xocolatl Mole Bitters adds a smooth-spicy, chocolaty roundness to a wide variety of cocktails that has led it to become a craft-bar staple.

San Diego's own craft bars, like Jayne's, The Lion's Share, Noble Experiment, The Pony Room, L'Auberge Del Mar among others, have been creating drinks with new bitters flavors and, in some cases, inventing their own. Polite Provisions in North Park had its namesake Polite Provisions cinnamon-raisin bitters created by Scrappy's, a popular bitters maker from Seattle.

And, this month, three San Diego bartenders, Ryan Andrews, Brett Winfield and Eric Lockridge (of Craft and Commerce, Seven Grand and Prepkitchen, respectively) will enter the bitters fray with the launch of their company RX Bitters. After a year of experimentation and a successful Kickstarter campaign, RX is going to market with three initial offerings: aromatic, cherry-apple and sarsaparilla.

Andrews defines their intention as filling a gap rather than creating a need. 

"Prior to prohibition, there were hundreds of bitters available... [They're] like salt and pepper in cooking," he says. "They're the balancing act that happens in a cocktail, equalizing sweetness while boosting certain flavor profiles.

"This is not a trend," he adds. "This is most certainly a return to the craft."

Write to dak@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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