"A Manhattan without bitters is like pound cake without vanilla extract or chicken noodle soup without salt and pepper," says Ian Farley, bar manager of West Ashley's the Original Ms. Rose's. "When you forget to add it, you notice."
Bitters are typically alcoholic infusions, steeped with roots, herbs, and spices and a bitter or bittersweet flavor. The aroma and taste of bitters is wide-ranging and complex, in accordance with these intricate, botanical blends.
"Bitters add a fourth dimension of flavor to a cocktail," says Gram Howle, owner and head apothecary of Charleston's Newtonian Beverage Company.
Speakeasy bar manager Jonathan Calo agrees. "Bitters in a cocktail are like an intermezzo or palate cleanser in a multi-course meal. You have five major tastes on the tongue, and bitters help to cleanse and balance a cocktail's wide range of flavors."
Bitters date back to the early 18th century and were originally used to treat a myriad of common illnesses. According to Howle, the same roots and herbs used in ancient Asian and Native American remedies for intestinal parasites, heartburn, and upset stomachs were soaked in alcohol for easier consumption. As salesmen traveled from town to town hawking their signature tonics, bitters found their way into cocktails as well.
Before the rise of Appletinis and soda-gun whiskey sour mix, a cocktail was defined by the bitters it included. "The original cocktail had to have a spirit, liqueur, an acid, water, sugar, and bitters," says Calo. "When you ordered a cocktail, you knew what you were going to get."
While 19th century Charleston had its own brands of bitters, aptly named Sumter and Old Carolina, New Orleans lays claim to the oldest bitters in America with Peychaud's, most commonly used in the Sazerac.
After a flowering of pre-temperance cocktails, Prohibition pretty much wiped out small-batch bitters. "Unless you could keep the family recipe alive, you didn't stand much of a chance," Calo says.
For years, Peychaud's and the yellow-capped Angostura were the only bitters to be found in most American bars. Gin Joint owner Joe Raya remembers his search for an authentic cocktail while attending college in New York.
"There were a couple of books that I liked that mentioned certain cocktails, and for a few years, I couldn't find a bar that could make them," he says. "In 2004, I happened upon a spot, and I just sat there asking them to make all of these drinks. I focused my career on wine at school and eventually put the same effort into cocktails."
Raya's road to old-fashioned cocktail glory is markedly similar to many of Charleston's bartending elite. "We used to call Charleston 'right on time seven years too late,'" laughs Calo, who fondly remembers tending bar at Social with a secret stash of signature bitters behind the bar for his fellow mixology nerds.
"We had an underground geekiness, making infusions for friends because we knew that they'd appreciate them," he says. Calo and his bitters-swilling compadres, the founding fathers of Charleston's cocktail movement, were dying for watering holes like the Speakeasy, Gin Joint, and Belmont.
How times have changed. "I used to read about these great bars in Portland, Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, and now it's all here," Calo says. "Just last week, I was chatting with a mom from Mt. Pleasant looking for advice on bitters. Charleston has progressed 100 times over the past three years."
Small-batch bitters are relatively easy to make at home. The process takes about a month, according to Maggie Fitts, owner of The Bitter Elephant, a local company set to debut in April. "You'll need two jars to store the contents during the infusion process, a base liquor (often vodka or rye), a bittering agent (wormwood, walnut leaves, or cinchona bark), one or more flavoring agents (orange peel, cinnamon sticks, lemongrass, or cardamom pods), water, and rich syrup," she says. "Try to shake the jar every other day or so, and you're set." Think of it like a marinade or a slow-simmering pasta sauce.
From there, it's all taste and trial and error, says Howle, who looks to the kitchen as well as medical remedies for inspiration. "I'll try anything," he says. "If the ingredients make sense culinary-wise, or if certain herbs and roots are combined to treat an ailment, I'll go for it."
Howle's bitters lineup includes a diverse array of flavors, including celery, Confederate jasmine, mole, pumpkin pie, baked apple, and peppermint. Some of the more unusual recipes have come at the behest of local restaurants.
In typical lardcore fashion, Husk requested a sausage bitters, and Howle took on the task, creating his trademark Slaughterhouse blend. It's Jimmy Dean in a dropper. You get the smoky pork flavor without the fat, and not surprisingly, this savory bitters is quite popular, especially in Husk's Bourbon Flip. "With the egg whites and sausage bitters, you get your breakfast in one sip," Howle says.
While bitters might take on a bittersweet taste alone, when added to cocktails they can do wondrous things. "Bitters don't have to be bitter, but most of the time, when you take multiple flavors and add a bittering agent, you hit the bitter end of the taste spectrum," Howle says. "Paradoxically, when you add bitters to a cocktail, the sharpness disappears."
Along with the disappearing act, bitters take on the overworked, underpaid management role. "A cocktail with bitters really brings depth, flavor, and a whole new complexion to the drink," says Calo. "Bitters help balance the cocktail as well. You don't want it to be too sweet, sour, or spirited."
In a cocktail featuring Single Barrel Milagro Tequila, Cocchi Americano, orange bitters, and a touch of simple syrup, Calo showcases the tequila while balancing the sweet vermouth and simple syrup. Overall, this clean and classic cocktail gives equal representation to each ingredient, and the taste of orange bitters is nowhere to be found.
With only so much room in the glass, it's about capacity at the Gin Joint. "Every ingredient adds volume to a cocktail," says Raya. "You don't want too much volume, and you don't want to lose the proof of the alcohol. We use bitters to add complexity, flavor, and aroma without adding volume."
Like a chef in the kitchen, a mixologist has a larger say in the final product, in comparison to a vintner or brewer. This increased control turned Calo from certified sommelier to master mixologist, because of the opportunity bitters, liqueurs, and syrups offered him behind the bar. "Bitters can complement or contrast a cocktail," he said. "You can add a little or add a lot. The possibilities are endless."
In balancing a drink, Calo considers the bitters, the proof of the liquor, and the sweet and the sour flavors needed to bind a cocktail together. "With bitters, I have a lot to say over how flavors interact," Calo says. "I get to listen to what a customer likes and create a cocktail based upon his or her taste."
While classic cocktails might just be a trend, Calo, Howle, Raya, and their colleagues behind the bar believe that fresh, quality ingredients are here to stay, and that includes homemade infusions.
"If something is done with really great elements and with care and diligence, it's going to turn out well, whether it's food, drink, or a rocking chair," Howle says. "And people notice that. We're over the artificial flavors and mass production of the 1980s and 1990s."
"We're living in an age of authenticity," adds Raya. "Our customers want good stuff. They expect cuisine and cocktails to mean something. Charleston has a great palate and an increasing appetite for high-quality food and drink. Cocktails should more than live up to the efforts made with food."