By Jason O'Bryan / Photos by Lyudmila Zotova
Bitters look like apothecary tinctures from a bygone era because, well, they are. The small dasher tops and busy historic labels lend mystery to what are, without question, the most commonly asked-about mainstays in a bartender's arsenal.
At their core, bitters are alcohol-infused with bitter herbs and roots, their uses most easily likened to spices in cooking. They're the accent marks, the final flourishes adding depth and personality, which can transform a cocktail from good to great.
Like so much in the alcohol world, bitters started as medicine. In the late 17th century, doctors prescribed bitter solutions made from gentian, wormwood and other delicious-sounding botanicals to settle upset stomachs. Because things in those days lasted only 15 minutes before someone threw in alcohol (maybe because it helps with preservation), they began to infuse the terrible-tasting herbs into spirits, which was as brilliant as it sounds, save for one problem: they still tasted miserable.
Alcohol or not, "taking your bitters" was akin to "taking your vitamins." It was a chore.
As the century closed, an unnamed visionary had the clever idea of adding a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, before realizing sugar, liquor and water (the ingredients in a period drink called "The Sling") would help even more. He named his mixed creation after a mixed-breed of horse called a "cock-tail," creating what we now know as an Old Fashioned and laying a cornerstone in the foundation of the American Bar.
Why was this so significant? Because even a tiny bit of bitterness can do wonders for drinks.
"Bitters have the capability to add depth and complexity to a cocktail," says Hassan Mahmood of The Lion's Share in Downtown's Marina District. "Although they are usually used in small quantities, they're concentrated and can add wonderful aromas and spice."
Mahmood employs his occasionally bizarre collection of bitters (think Sriracha, fennel, etc.) more than most. The Lion's Share churns out a sugar and Orgeat-balanced cocktail with bitters as a base, loaded with 50 times the normal dose found in a cocktail. The bitter concoction is called "Tears of a Jets Fan", and is perfect for the SD market in that, after last season, it's well known that Chargers fans can stomach anything.
629 Kettner Blvd, Downtown