New York City's Pegu Club proves that bitterness has its place, and it's in your cocktail glass. Along with napkins and swizzle sticks, Pegu's bar proffers vials of flavorings, including a variety of bitters as cocktail condiments. When splashed judiciously into gin, rum, or whiskey drinks, bitters can add mystery and interest for the nose and greater depth across the palette. Pegu patrons are encouraged to customize.
Bitters are a branch of the family of loosely related herbal and fruit alcohol infusions called liqueurs. Concentrated bitters are used as flavorings for other things, while sweeter, lighter ones survive mainly in Europe as meal-starters called aperitifs. The herbal contribution to the bitter liqueur may be achieved by literally soaking herbs in alcohol, or by distilling them to some degree or another along with other ingredients.
Bitters intended to flavor other things can be up to 45% alcohol and come in small shaker bottles. The best-known brands, Angostura and Peychaud, get their punch from an alpine flowering plant called gentian. You may have had the pleasure of gentian without realizing it: it's that potent, vegetal flavor in Moxie cola (the original one). There are many other kinds of bitters, including some made from orange peels, maraschino cherries, and anise.
Sidebar: There's a rumor that Angostura bitters contains extract from the bark of a tree of the same name. Not true, claims the manufacturer and Webtender. Rather, Angostura is the name of the town in Venezuela (now Ciudad Bolivar) where it was invented in 1824 by Dr. J. Siegert, a German adventurer who spent 4 years concocting it in order to bolster the vigor and stamina of his troops.
Meal Starter, Ailment Stopper
Aperitifs, literally "openers", are traditionally consumed prior to a meal in order to prepare the mind and body for nourishment. According to Harold McGee, there's evidence that alcohol does in fact stimulate digestive accuity, and the romans employed this philosophy with gusto. Campari and Vermouth are both examples. The most shockingly strong one--at least in my experience--is Cynar, an Italian, artichoke-based liqueur that's dark green and menacing (but in a good way) on the palette.
How to Use Bitters
Bitters of the concentrated flavoring variety are commonly used in cocktails, the best known of which are the Manhattan, Planters Punch, and the Old Fashioned. But here's one you might not have tried. It's perfect summer-cocktail fare based on one of my favorites, the Mojito, but with a dark rum, Carribean twist.
Best Mochito Recipe
For this recipe, you'll need a collins glass and a muddler.
1 Lemon half
Five or six fresh, lush, large mint leaves
4 ounces of dark, Jamaican or Trinidadian rum such as Mount Gay or Myers (for a complete list, check out this helpful About.com rum round-up)
Juice the lemon half into the pint glass and add the rind. Add the mint leaves and muddle well. The mint leaves should be darkened by being bruised but not in pieces. Next add ice, rum, and then fill the collins glass with soda water and shake 8 drops of bitters onto the top. Enjoy!