By Vanessa Gillard
Bitters add a dash of flavour to almost anything. Whether you’re baking or bartending, bitters will become your favourite secret.
Nestled in a grand vintage French china cabinet in a bright corner of The Silk Road is row upon row of vibrantly labeled, colourful little bottles: our selection of cocktail bitters. Many people are intrigued by these mysterious infusions and often have questions about what their uses are. As intriguing as their uses and ingredients are, their history is an interesting one as well.
Bitters originated as cure-all stomach remedies that were peddled to people young and old. One of the oldest and best-known brands, Angostura Aromatic Bitters, was invented in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, the acting Surgeon General for the armies of Simon Bolivar. They were indeed used to remedy the stomach ailments of Bolivar’s soldiers, who were frequently caught ill by their intense living conditions. Dr. Siegert named his medicinal concoction after the town where he lived: Angostura, Venezuela. Bitters increased in popularity through the 19th century, but because they were indeed bitter to drink, they were frequently mixed with other things. The most popular mixer became, predictably, alcohol. This led directly to the invention of the cocktail. According to an Imbibe Magazine article, Origin of the Cocktail, the term “cocktail” originally described “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Nowadays, bitters are used to add depth of flavour to cocktails. They are never the main attraction in a drink, but their contribution is large: the difference between an Old Fashioned with bitters and without is unmistakable (in fact, without bitters, it’s simply not an Old Fashioned). Bitters can be likened to extracts used in baking: a little goes a long way. Bitters can also be used to flavour non-alcoholic drinks and are particularly nice in brightening up plain soda water. Also, cooking with bitters can be just as exciting as playing bartender; bitters are great in everything from marinades to sauces to salad dressings.
Bitters are basically alcoholic infusions of botanical plants (root, barks, berries, leaves) and spices. The plethora of bitters flavours available from small upstart companies and the time-honoured giants is a reflection of the widespread resurgence in the popularity of Mixology, the likes of which has not been seen since prohibition. There are tons of flavours, but for those who’d like to devise their own bitters recipes The Silk Road has a great selection of botanicals, including gentian root, wormwood, quassia bark and more.
The Silk Road has a wide array of bitters available, from the classic Angostura Aromatic, which is essential to cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, to the intriguing Bittermen’s line that includes flavours like ‘Elemakule Tiki which has an allspice and cinnamon flavour followed by a touch of lime and ginger; great with rum. My personal favourite is Scrappy’s Cardamom bitters; a lovely addition to a particularly citrus-laden gin and tonic.
If you are looking to start your own collection, an aromatic bitters and an orange bitters are probably the most essential flavours to start with. If you can’t decide, a great alternative to buying your bitters by the bottle is grabbing a sampler set; we have several varieties from Bittered Sling and Scrappy’s.
With spring just around the corner, why not dazzle at your next barbeque or back yard soirée with a couple newly acquired bartending skills and all the perfect bitters to accompany them. Bottoms up!