A decade ago, bitter was bad. Keystone Light ran those hokey "bitter beer face" commercials and Green Apple Pucker was a legit martini ingredient. Now, chocolate is labeled with the percentage of pure cocoa and beer is ranked in International Bitterness Units. As a part of this bitter revival, bitters themselves have gained popularity.
Originally marketed for their medicinal qualities in the 19th century, bitters come in countless varieties, each involving a unique blend of roots, herbs, barks and botanicals. The most essential distinction, though, is between aromatic bitters—the potent flavoring agent that splashes out from tiny Tabasco-sized bottles—and bitter liqueurs like Campari, Fernet Branca or Jagermeister, which can be consumed on their own. Before the 1880’s, everything labeled a cocktail or a "bitter sling" contained a combination of liquor, water, sugar and aromatic bitters. In fact, the Old Fashioned got its name because it combined those four—and only those four—ingredients.
"A sling was a popular way of consuming distilled spirits at the turn of the 19th century, which was just sugar, booze and water," explained Modern Hotel bartender Michael Bowers. "People who were taking their morning medicine, their bitters, with a sling were the original inventors of the cocktail. It was a hair-of-the-dog sort of beverage, it was a way to take your medicine with a slug of booze at the same time.
Thanks to the revival of classic cocktail culture, there are a number of new bitters varieties--like mole, celery and lavender. Many cocktails on The Modern Hotel's bar menu feature bitters, including the Zig Zag, with rye whiskey, Amaro Ramazzotti, Fernet Branca and orange bitters.
Red Feather also offers a healthy selection of cocktails jazzed up with bitters. Drinks like the Vieux Carre are a bitters blast, while others like the Averee, with Aztec chocolate bitters, add a touch of sweetness. According to Red Feather Wine Steward Bobby Rowett, bitters add complexity to a drink's flavor profile.
"There are four to five basic cocktails. Everything is a variant," explained Rowett. "When you introduce bitters ... it spruces up a classic drink and makes it exciting."
But before you get dash happy with the bitters bottle, Bowers offered a few words of caution.
"There's a phrase that bartenders have used for years: 'Bitters makes everything better,' which isn't really true," said Bowers. "It's true to a certain extent, but you can't just dash bitters into everything."