› The history: Made from alcohol-infused roots and herbs, bitters date back to the ancient Egyptians. Today’s cocktail flavourings are fashioned after 19th-century bitters, which were sold as medical elixirs. Seeing the doctor was a lot more fun 100 years ago.
› The taxonomy: Very loosely speaking, most bitters can be classified as either aromatic or citrus. Both are used to tame the sugar in a drink and add depth of flavour, but the aromatic versions have an added bonus of waking up the palate. A Manhattan without bitters is flat and dull—using them is like sprinkling salt on an egg.
› The current landscape: Despite the flood of new bitters, bartenders usually rely on the holy trinity: Angostura (for Manhattans), Peychaud’s (mandatory for a Sazerac), and Regan’s Orange bitters (often used in sours or an Old Fashioned).
› The diaspora: The Bitter Truth and Bittermen’s launched these “anything goes” bitters six years ago with mole, celery, and Creole versions. From dandelion to fig to barbecue sauce, there’s no limit to what’s available now—and, yes, they mostly taste like the advertised flavours, even if some lose that bitter edge as a result.
› The historical re-enactors: Among cocktail enthusiasts with a fondness for old recipes, a popular pastime is trying to revive dead bitters brands (like Bokers) and styles (celery).
› The DIY approach: Since Canadian bartenders had to wait until 2012 to legally obtain all the new bitters (thanks, Customs!), many started making their own. It’s a basic, if lengthy, process: take high-proof alcohol, add some bitter herbs, let sit for a few weeks.
› The local angle: Mark Coster has developed a new boutique line, Coster’s prescriptions bitters, that can be found behind the bar at The Whipporwill, The Harbord Room, and Bar Isabel. And with good reason: These bitters are pretty great. The Blackstrap Ginger is kicky and sweet, balanced with a whiff of Lea and Perrins. Oak Aged Black Tea and Wormwood is herbaceous and minty, while Burnt Citrus’s baking-spice flavour adds warmth to brandy drinks. And if you have a strong cocktail made with over-proof rye, reach for a dash of Coffee and Smoke, which delivers exactly that.
$13–16 at thecraftybartender.com.