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Bitters heating up: Ingredient that brings depth, balance making comeback with resurgence of classic cocktails

Josh Tandberg adds bitters to his signature drink, a Showdown, on Friday at the HoDo lounge in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 3
Bottles of bitters are lined up at the HoDo lounge. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 3
Chris Herner pours vodka into a mix of ingredients for making an aromatic bitters solution at Mezzaluna in Fargo. Bourbon is also added after the vodka. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 3

FARGO - Bitter may be the best way to describe this winter, but bitters are heating up around town.

Bitters - made of herbs, bark or roots - are making a big comeback as part of the resurgence of classic cocktails.

Josh Tandberg of the Hotel Donaldson says the nationwide bitters boom is starting to be felt in Fargo.

"Old Fashioneds and Manhattans are way more popular than they were two years ago," he says, crediting "Mad Men" with inspiring the cocktail revival.

"It's a lot of fun to work with and experiment with," he says of using bitters. "How many Morgan Cokes can you pour? You take a cocktail that may otherwise be flat and put a different spin on it, a new dimension."

Adding depth and balance is what bitters have brought to drinks for well over a century. Sazerac, generally considered to be one of the oldest recorded cocktails, has been made with Peychaud's Bitters since 1850.

"There is an explosion of what's called the craft cocktail movement around the world," says Joe Fee of Fee Brothers, a Rochester, N.Y., company that's been making bitters for 150 years. "I'm here to tell you, it's absolutely huge."

Fee says business has tripled over the past eight years and continues to grow. In late January he came to Fargo to introduce his product to new clients.

"Bitters is your spice rack behind the bar," Fee says. "It's just an unfortunate name. It puts people off."

Fee says the resurrection of classic cocktails was a long time coming.

"The state of the art in bartending took a hit in Prohibition when our best and brightest bartenders boogied for work elsewhere to Canada and Europe," he explains.

With the Internet, bartenders started communicating, the old mixology books became more readily available and a new generation took a page from history.

While there is revived interest in bitters, some encouragement is still needed.

"People get nervous around (bitters), especially young bartenders. They will grab a bottle of bitters with their hazmat gloves on and they hold it out at arms' length and drop a couple of drops and think they've gone too far," Fee says. "You shouldn't be a wussy about bitters."

Not all young barkeeps fear the bitters.

"I've always been a geek about bitters," says Chris Herner, a bartender and server at Mezzaluna.

The 29-year-old is so interested in the component, he makes his own. His next step is he wants to play around with developing a spiced fig bitters.For now his favorite drink is Mezzaluna's Prohibition Sour, mixing bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup and egg whites with aromatic bitters misted over the top.

"It gives it a little bit of a nose," he says.

Fee calls aromatics, "old fashioned bitters."

"That's the mac daddy," he says. "If bitters are the spice rack behind the bar than the old fashioned is your salt."

Tandberg uses Angostura's aromatic bitters in his signature drink, the Showdown, which helped him win Bartender of the Year in December. The Showdown combines Bulleit Bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, a mist of absinthe and bitters for a complex, sophisticated concoction.

While aromatics may be the salt of bitters, there are plenty of other seasonings bartenders are using.

Tandberg recalls that the Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry Bitters "really got us thinking out of the box."

Fee says cherry bitters can easily replace the actual fruit in a Manhattan.

Some combinations are a little more creative. Tandberg likes the Fee Brothers' Mint Bitters in an Asian Pear Martini or the Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters in last week's drink-of-the-week, The Brandt.

Herner likes chocolate bitters in an old fashioned and orange bitters in gin drinks.

"I'd rather use celery bitters than celery salt," he says. "They're terrific in a Bloody Mary."

One of the more recent developments, a Black Walnut Bitters, has Fee excited.

"It's good with sipping whiskey or bourbon. It puts a little nutty note in the background, gives it a little more depth of flavor," he says. "Or go tiki with it. How about some rum, pineapple juice?"

Tandberg likes it in a Black Russian.

And bitters aren't just for booze. Tandberg mixes a couple of drops of orange bitters in with a glass of English Pale Ale.

Bitters even have a place outside the bar and in the medicine cabinet.

"If I have heartburn or a stomachache, I'll have bitters and soda," Herner says, pointing out many bitters developed as a tonic. "It's a great cure-all."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

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