An Introduction to Aromatic Bitters

published Nov 5, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Is there a most important bottle in the 9-Bottle Bar? One that turns up in essential recipe after essential recipe, and bridges gaps between disparate ingredients? Is there one bottle that, like the Dude’s cherished rug, really ties the metaphorical room that is the 9-Bottle Bar together?

While I don’t play favorites, a strong case could be made for preeminence of the ninth and final bottle to be covered in the series: aromatic bitters. Though it’s coming last, it’s certainly not least.

What Are Aromatic Bitters? (Don’t You Mean Angostura?)

“Aromatic” bitters is something of a catchall term, though most people associate it with one brand, namely Angostura. During the decades that preceded the recent renaissance in cocktail culture, the little white-labeled bottles with the yellow caps were the one bitters that most people knew, period. And in most bars, Angostura was the one and only bitters on hand.

But if you look back on the diverse world of bitters that existed more than a century ago, prior to Prohibition, aromatic bitters was more like a category unto itself, with multiple brands employing the term to help characterize their product. And with the surge in renewed interest in bitters in recent years, history has begun to repeat itself, with a number of bitters on today’s market that either use the term outright or whose flavor profile associates them with the category.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Here’s What Aromatic Bitters Taste Like

And what flavor profile would that be? Generally speaking, one that is expressive of bitter roots, earth, and various types of baking spices, such as (but by no means limited to) cinnamon, clove, and cardamom. The bittering agent gentian root turns up in lots of aromatic bitters, including Angostura. And aromatic bitters — in keeping with their origins as purported cure-alls — tend to also have a distinctly medicinal dimension to their flavor.

Why Aromatic Bitters Are So Important

Did the descriptions above cause you to drop everything, run out, and purchase every bottle of aromatic bitters you can get your hands on? Probably not. Gentian root? “Medicinal”? How do these add up to what could arguably be the most important ingredient in the 9-Bottle Bar? The magic and mystery of bitters somehow makes it so.

On their own, the dominant flavors of aromatic bitters may not be especially palatable — indeed, they’re considered “non-potable” because of their intense pungency. But with just a few dashes mixed into a cocktail, aromatic bitters can create surprising depth and balance, much the same way adding salt to a dish helps to highlight the flavors in food. What’s more, aromatic bitters are quite versatile; they have no trouble mingling with all three of the spirits featured in the 9-Bottle Bar (rye whiskey, London dry gin, and light rum). No bartender should be without it.