Late last year, I finally resolved to buy a bottle of bitters that I’d been coveting for months. The flavor was The Bitter End’s Memphis Barbeque Bitters and while I was regularly fantasizing about its ambrosial smokey, spicy qualities, I was hesitant to smack down $23 for a product I’d be using drops at a time.
Sure, I’d spent the same amount on Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters’ Sriracha Bitters. But I wasn’t using it very often. After the initial excitement over such a novel flavor and a few ill-fated experiments, I didn’t use it at all. But I didn’t regret the purchase and I was sure the Memphis Barbeque Bitters from Bitter End would be more practical. I love smoke and I love spice — of course it would be useful.
I found the Barbeque Bitters at Astor Wines & Spirits, at the tasting counter. When I asked for it, the guy behind the counter and I chatted a bit. We sampled a few drops and agreed it was bewitching, but when it came to cocktails the bitters might be used for, neither of us had any ideas. Huh, I thought as I shelled out more than 20 bucks for this two-ounce bottle of chipotle, mustard seed, orange peel, coffee beans, black pepper, allspice, thyme, cumin, bay leaf, and oregano. What do I do with it? This Chipotle Cooler sounded good, and so did The Appalachian. But for some reason I never tried them, instead opting for my own Old Fashioned-based experiments with bourbon, rye, and mezcal, respectively. (They all failed.)
So the question is: are there too many bitters on the market to be practical? Are home bartenders lured in by exotic extracts, only to be confounded when it comes to actually using them?
Most bitters seem to be created out of optimistic possibilities rather than necessity. In the end, there are three reasons to buy specific varieties of bitters: Because they’ll be useful (Angostura, Orange, Peychaud’s), because you have a recipe that calls for one, or because they just sound delicious.
As cocktail enthusiasts go, I’d guess my collection is about average. My current stock of bitters includes Angostura and Peychaud’s along with a couple bottles made by a friend (a Mexican oregano-driven one and a spiced apple one) and:
Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters
West Indian Orange Bitters
Aztec Chocolate Bitters
Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters
The Bitter End
Memphis Barbeque Bitters
Regans’ Orange Bitters #6
The Bitter Truth (Travel Set)
Old Time Aromatic Bitters
Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters
The only thing crazier than having a stock of nearly 20 kinds of bitters is how much I actually need a good deal of them. I have three different twists on orange bitters and I use them all. One style of celery bitters is spicy and the other is savory. The chocolate bitters gets used so much I’m thinking I need to branch out and try a couple other styles of chocolate (mostly for Oaxacan Old Fashioneds). And my extended wish list includes a handful of flavors from Bittercube (particularly Cherry Bark Vanilla), Angostura’s Orange Bitters (often twice the price of the traditional Angostura!), Maya Mezcal Bitters from Bitter Tears, a couple types from Bitters, Old Men including Smoke Gets In Your Bitters and Gangsta Lee’n Bacon and Smoked Almond Bitters (wow!).
So in conclusion, yes, there are way too many bitters on the market right now. Far more than can possibly be useful to even the most adventurous and active home bartender. I’m sure that we’re close to peak bitters, and that complex cocktails with obscure ingredients will begin to seem, well, too complicated.
And yet in the meantime, I’ll keep buying them for the excitement of possibilities and the hope that I find another classic that becomes an essential ingredient in the perfect cocktail.
My advice: Look for bitters based on your own cocktail needs and think twice about those novelty flavors. Buy variety packs and travel-size bottles when you can — it’s cheaper in the long run. And finally, consider splitting larger bottles of less useful bitters with friends by decanting into multiple smaller bottles.