Backyard Bitters

Article for World Food Travel Association

When someone says “bitters” most people automatically think of a Manhattan or Angostura Bitters. They don’t often remember that bitters used to be famous for martini’s where the original recipes called for gin, vermouth, and orange bitters. Or that British colonials found that bitters and antimalarial quinine tonic mixed with gin masked the intensely bitter quinine medicine. There is still a trace amount of quinine in tonic water that is why at some bars tonic water dispenser is designated with a “Q”.

Over the years people grew to forget the bitters in martinis and gin and tonic’s and think of them more for bourbon or whiskey drinks but that’s only one side of the equation. White spirits meld better with different sets of bitters than brown spirits. Bitters are what adds the depth and flavor to a drink. It melds the ingredients and marries the flavors of the drink. If you asked a seasoned bartender to withhold the sugar or the bitters from your drink they might let you know that it won’t be as good. You won’t have the depth and complexity of flavor that the drink commands.

In recent years, bitters have really grown in popularity. Mark Bitterman of Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari states, “Back in 2006, when I opened my shop, The Meadow, I succeeded in putting a grand total of 18 bitters on the shelves, sourced from around the world. Today we carry between 150 and 200 varieties, depending on the shop location.”

Nathan from Modernist says, “You can tell a good bar from a bad one by looking at the cocktail menu. Do they have a mix of complex flavors and use a lot of bitters? If they use a lot of bitters it probably means they know how to make some really flavorful cocktails.”

Portland is a big city in our Cascadia region, yet small and nimble compared to most other cities in the world. It has set standards and trends that the rest of the world uses once it finds out the secret. Besides being “small” and nimble, Portland caters to experience and experimentation. Part of that is due to the size but it also has to do with our relationship to the land and the farms. In Portland and the rest of Cascadia the farms are not far away. In fact there are many farmer’s market stands in cities or mobile stands that move around to give everyone access to fresh, healthy ingredients. Cascadia is not as densely populated as some of the other areas around the world. We are not only close in proximity to the local purveyors but everyone has access to them from chefs to restaurant owners and home cooks. We very much embrace the farm to table environment and not letting anything go to waste. Restaurants love to experiment and people love to consume it. We’ve become a hotspot for the rest of the world, just by living off our land.

“Being this close to the Pacific Ocean affects our attitude and connection to nature as well, making the food and beverage less about pumping out product, but more on the ‘slow food’ execution of product.” Says Lauren Mote and Jonathan Chovancek, Proprietors at Bittered Sling Bitters.

We’ve gone back to our roots, literally and figuratively. We’re experimenting with the things we find in our own backyard. Lydia from Pure Simple Juice and Tender Bar recommends incorporating dandelion greens into your next smoothie or meal if you want to add non-alcoholic bitters. You’ll get the great health benefits and the complex bitter flavors without needing to infuse them in alcohol.

A big misconception about bitters is that they are bitter. That is not true as they are intended to be used. A small amount of bitters added to a drink or culinary creation can make anything more flavorful and smooth, not bitter. Try experimenting with your next salad dressing or meat marinade. Try a small amount of bitters and go from there. Compare with and without the use of bitters. Make notes in your process about how much you used and how it tasted. Next time add more or less depending on your results.

The same is true if you want to start making your own backyard bitters. You’ll start with a high proof spirit and add botanicals. Let it infuse for a few days and start tasting it. Agitate the mixture, let it sit then taste again the next day. Repeat this until you love the flavor. If you realize it was better on day 8 then 9. Next time you’ll know to stop infusing the spirit at day 8. You can make one big jar with a few different herbs or you can make smaller jars with just one botanical per jar. The choice is up to you.

“Nearly all edible plants can be used to create bitters.” says Brett Williams of The Meadows.

Here in Cascadia we’re geeky about cocktails. Our restaurants and bars know that we love experimentation in our beverages and food. We want to try new things so they make it for us. It’s a cyclical process because they make it and we consume it. We are passionate about not letting things go to waste and using all of the plant or animal in our foods. We want to know that our foods are local and good quality We are passionate about good food and beverages. Smaller bars create more of an intimate and experimental atmosphere. If the city is too big you start to get away from this experimentation. The experimentation will start to move out into the next smaller towns and then the next, because these smaller towns can be more nimble. It’s easier to try things on a smaller scale than it is a bigger one.

Smaller is becoming the new trend. Bigger cities used to be the place where you found the good cocktails but not anymore. Smaller is becoming better. As Seattle, Vancouver and Portland grow bigger, you’ll see the experimental trend moving further out in the next smaller towns and cities. These “big” cities may have seen their passion boom. Passion projects require less capital and a lot of love. These projects are bigger in smaller cities because start up costs are lower. The cost of entry and the stakes for failure are lower. As Seattle, Portland and Vancouver continue to grow and start up costs rise the small businesses will start booming in smaller towns in Idaho, Montana and Northern California.

To gain a better appreciation of bitters, Lauren Mote and Jonathan Chovancek recommend, “Tasting both styles of bitters, learning classic cocktails with and without the addition of “bitters”, and cataloguing the differences on the palate. Technical “hands on” is the best place to start, and from there extended research, and more testing/tasting.