One of the first recorded cocktail recipes described a concoction of four ingredients: spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. Sounds a lot like a classic old-fashioned, right? Well, sort of. This was in 1806 when, rather than mixologists passing said cocktails over the bar to patrons, physicians prescribed both whiskey and bitters to their patients to cure everything from digestive problems to hair loss and impotency. Apothecaries of the era (and more than a few traveling snake oil salesmen) prepared bitters by steeping roots, herbs, spices, and dried flowers in alcohol. The process for making bitters remains virtually the same today. And thanks in large part to the current craft-cocktail craze, bitters are back in vogue, but this time for the flavor profile they add to aperitifs versus medicinal qualities.
Bartenders often say bitters are to cocktails what spices are to food. When judiciously applied (a little goes a long way!), bitters can elevate a drink beyond the expected to something truly splendid. For those new to experimenting with bitters, orange variations are a great place to start; they’re easy to source, and even if you go a bit overboard, this flavor is rarely overpowering. As a rule of thumb, remember that the fewer ingredients in a cocktail, the more individual flavors will shine through. Try adding just a drop or two at a time to your favorite low-key combo until you find your preferred balance. Classic “on the rocks” highballs like gin and tonics or whiskey-sodas make for a perfect opportunity for bitters experimentation: a single dash of orange bitters adds a zippy citrus kick and anticipatory floral fragrance, immediately taking your happy hour up a notch.
Make It Yourself
Need more imbibing inspiration? Check out these advanced cocktail recipes from two of a slew of Park City restaurants and bars that embrace locally made bitters.
Untethered, Tupelo (508 Main St, 435.615.7700)
- 1.5 oz Eagle Rare bourbon whiskey
- .5 oz Campari
- .5 oz Aperol
- .5 oz maple syrup
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- (such as Honest John Orange Bitters)
- 2 dashes Charred Cedar
- & Currant Bitters (Bitters Lab)
Add all ingredients to an old-fashioned glass; gently stir until syrup is completely dissolved. Serve with a large ice sphere or rock and an orange twist.
Hipster’s Paradise, Handle (136 Heber Ave, 435.602.1155)
- 1.5 oz Ransom Old Tom gin
- .75 oz Amaro Montenegro
- .5 oz lemon juice
- .25 oz honey water syrup*
- 5 drops lemon bitters
- (Beehive Bitters)
Add all ingredients to a shaking tin with ice; shake until well chilled. Strain into a chilled Nick and Nora or coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon swath. *For honey water syrup, combine equal parts honey and water; stir until dissolved.