What goes into bitters? What makes bitters bitter? How do you come up with your flavors? I get a lot of questions about the ingredients that go into each flavor of bitters and how each flavor is different. Honestly, I love talking about flavor. It’s one of the best parts about what I do, playing around with flavors for bitters and then coming up with different ways to use them.
Creating the Recipe
Since one of my primary goals is to get you to use our bitters and not let them collect dust on your bar, I work hard to make all our flavors versatile and balanced. That means even if the flavor is a little unfamiliar or you're new to using bitters you'll have lots of ways to use them and they won’t overwhelm your drinks.
With that end in mind I generally start my recipe development thinking of both a flavor that would be interesting in drinks and more specifically the types of drinks I would use it in. For instance with our Grapefruit Bitters I first thought of Gin & Tonic, a Hemingway Daiquiri, and a Paloma.
With those drinks in mind, I looked at flavors that compliment grapefruit to start building my recipe. Ginger for a little spice, coriander and hops for subtle herbaceous qualities, a touch of cardamom for warmth. Then I considered which bittering agents to use. I wanted to keep the grapefruit bitters light and fresh, so I stuck with gentian as the main bitter herb and cut out many of the others I often use. I also doubled down on the hops for an additional bitter note. We generally bring our flavors together with a touch of sugar, but for grapefruit I chose honey to add a round, lightly floral sweetness to the bitters.
I have a long list of ingredients (read more about the ingredients we use here) I turn to when looking to build out a recipe, but I’m always hunting for more. I also look to some of my favorite cookbooks for inspiration on flavors that work well together. Our Lime Coriander bitters was definitely inspired by some of my favorite Thai and Vietnamese recipes.
There’s a lot of trial and error to getting the amounts of each ingredient right and deciding if it brings anything to the recipe that I’m looking for. But I approach each recipe similarly. What is my main flavor and how do I think I’ll use it? What are supporting flavors that will bring out the characteristics I’m looking for and work with the drinks I want to make? What bittering agents will work best with all the ingredients? Once I have a few test batches I also mix some drinks to see how it works in a cocktail. In addition to my original thoughts, it turns out Grapefruit is my go to for low alcohol drinks made with vermouth and fortified wines. It also goes really well with smokey mezcals and many amaros.
Which Flavors to Release
I'm also often asked about making flavors we don't have, like peach or lavender bitters. While I'm always open to new flavor ideas I first ask myself two questions when first considering a new flavor. What do I think I would use this flavor in (hopefully my mind is busy with many different things it could taste good in)? And if the flavor is one that already exists (like lavender), can I imagine a different expression that would be easy to use and versatile?
Lavender is a great example of a bitters flavor I probably won't make. A few brands I know well and highly regard already make a great version that I really don't see myself improving upon. It's a specialized flavor that doesn't need ten on the market.
On the other hand Orange is a great example of the exact opposite argument. While there are a few on the market already by well know, reputable brands I saw that I could bring something different to the table and I also believe the market can support multiple expressions of orange bitters. It's a classic flavor that works well in a variety of drinks with a variety of spirits.
As much as I would love to bring every flavor I've made that tasted great to market, it doesn't always make sense. I have to ask if our customers, and potential new ones, will know what to do with it and use it often. Or is it special enough, unique enough, that it's worth sharing it even if we only make and sell a little bit.