Just before Christmas last year, my husband and I took a trip to the Washington D.C. area for a concert and a weekend away from home—just a getaway kind of thing. My, how things have changed. During our visit there, we stumbled upon a bourbon cocktail that used a special kind of chocolate bitters, and we couldn’t stop thinking about how to re-create that drink at home (if only we could figure out where in the world to get chocolate bitters). Thanks to our high-speed internet connection and a quick scan of the credit card, I placed an order and our fab cocktail experiment was about to begin. A funny thing happened, though.
Along the way to finding the chocolate bitters, I inadvertently uncovered an entire world of cocktail ingredients that I barely imagined existed. I’m always 100% in favor of trying something new—especially in my glass—and lately my cocktail game is like a game of roulette. With a steady schedule of FaceTime happy hours with friends and family around the globe, we have plenty of opportunities to play with drink recipes. And, to be honest, there’s a bit of vanity in me when it comes to choosing our drink du jour. After the obligatory back-and-forth of “can you guys hear us?” and “how do we make this full-screen?” I live for the moment when we clink glasses at the screen. And in that moment, my Leo nature wants to be asked, “Whoa—whatcha drinkin’?” No, this lioness will not be caught dead with a boring drink.
I’m having my own personal cocktail awakening and finding it crazy fun to tinker with new spirits and mixers—especially infused simple syrups and so many unusual cocktail bitters. Thankfully, my husband, Les, is a willing participant for this journey (well, unless it’s gin). Buckle up for a crash course on what I’ve learned so far.
What are bitters?
Cocktail bitters are a blend of various roots and herbs, usually preserved in a high-proof neutral grain alcohol and sometimes spiked with fruit and spice flavors. They are used in very small amount—a “dash” of bitters is only a quick couple of shakes or drops from the bottle, which has a special top to prevent overpouring. These blends are extremely concentrated, so a little goes a long way. To compare it with something familiar, bitters are kind of like vanilla extract—but with more than one flavor because of all the components in them.
Do bitters make your drink taste bitter?
Not really, but they do bring depth and character to an otherwise predictable drink. Most bitters tend to have an underlying “key” flavor, such as orange or anise, but others may be highly complex—for example, Angostura’s brand of “aromatic” bitters carries notes of juniper berry, cinnamon, orange zest, clove and even cocoa. But you don’t taste all of those things individually. The combination just makes your drink taste more interesting, without losing the character of the spirit ingredient. Kind of like the horn section in a really great song.
What is a simple syrup?
A simple syrup is generally a blend of equal parts sugar and water, boiled just enough to dissolve the sugar and perhaps steeped with other ingredients to add flavors. It’s the easiest way to add a splash of sweet to a cocktail, or even to sweeten up a glass of iced tea because sugar on its own doesn’t blend well in cold liquids. I’ve found it easy to infuse a syrup with just about anything—fresh herbs, hot peppers, citrus peel and even tea bags. It gives me a vehicle to add all kinds of flavor to a cocktail without watering it down. A thin simple syrup would have higher ratio of water to sugar, and a rich simple syrup would be the opposite—more sugar and less water. Don’t feel limited to plain sugar, either—you can make simple syrup from brown or coconut sugar, honey or even maple syrup. Go wild with it!
Are bitters the same as mixers?
No, but some mixers have bitters blended in them. I recently purchased a product called “Proof Syrup,” in a maple bacon flavor (it sounds more incredible than it was), and one of the key components in the syrup was bacon-infused bitters. Mixers are generally used in greater proportion, equal to or slightly less than the spirit ingredient. With bitters alone, easy does it or they overpower the drink.
Where do you buy bitters?
This is the million-dollar question I keep asking myself, and these days, I skip the brick-and-mortar and go directly to online retailers. The garden varieties—aromatic and orange bitters—are widely available in supermarkets in the cocktail mixers section. But if you want to find something exotic or out of the ordinary, such as rhubarb, celery or black walnut bitters, online is the way to go. I’d recommend starting here at AwesomeDrinks.com because they have a good selection from a variety of brands. This is the same site where I bought my Nick and Nora cocktail glasses for the Sassy Comeback cocktail that still visits my dreams.
How many flavors of bitters are there?
Heaven only knows! I spent a good hour narrowing my choices from the online store mentioned above, and I am quite sure I’ll go back for more. Here’s what I purchased most recently:
Fee Brothers’ Cherry Bitters, because Les is wild about cherries. It’s great in bourbon drinks, which is also his new favorite.
I went a little crazy for the selection of Scrappy’s Bitters, purchasing both the cardamom and lavender bitters. The cardamom is intense, but delicious in a most exotic way. I like it with a small batch pear-infused rye produced by one of our local distillers. The lavender? Well, let’s just say I’m still trying to figure out how to further reduce the amount I use because even one drop in a gin drink makes me feel like I just licked a bar of Grandma’s fancy soap. I’m open to suggestions.
Finally, there’s these Bitter End Jamaican Jerk Bitters, because the idea of spices and heat in my drink is pretty much sending me head over heels. Honestly, everything Jamaican jerk is dialing my number right now (perhaps you’ve noticed with these pizzas and this stuffed pepper recipe), so I’ve been working on new ways to get this flavor into my life.
And that brings us full circle to this cocktail, which I’ve named the “Cool Jerk.”
Back in another decade, when I wore pinstriped jeans and big permed hair, it was “cool” to have a fuzzy navel, Alabama slammer or some sweet frothy rum drink with an umbrella, basically the only drinks I knew how to order. But I’m all grown up now and so is this drink. It’s still fruity and tropical, but there’s complex spice instead of just sweet. Rather, it leans toward the sophisticated side of things, especially in a crystal cut, double rocks glass.
There was never a doubt which spirit I’d use—it had to be Jamaican-born Appleton Estate rum, smooth and lightly sweet, with hints of warm spice. I was fortunate enough to visit Jamaica in the late ‘90s, and a full bottle of this rum smuggled itself into my bag for the plane ride home (remember when we could put more than 4 oz. of liquid in our carry-on)?
Lime is the only citrus juice to use with rum (think daiquiri or mojito), and I’ve used a combination of two simple syrups to bring it back into balance—a jalapeno syrup (which is frankly still rocking my world after the pineapple jalapeno ice cream) and the same lemon-ginger syrup I debuted with the Sassy Comeback drink.
The Jamaican jerk bitters are hitting all the right spice buttons, with nutmeg, quassia (a bitter wood native to the Caribbean and parts of South America), habanero, cinnamon, allspice and thyme. The bitters are labeled “extremely spicy” (and I’m quite sure they would be if we took a swig from the bottle), but the little bit we are putting in the drink is not going to set you ablaze. For us, it feels like a perfect balance, about a 3 on a 1-10 spicy scale.
To make this drink, you’ll need a cocktail mixing glass and spoon, measuring jigger and some big-as-your-face ice cubes. Garnish it with a slice of lime or, if you’re lucky enough to have some leftover from the Jerk pizzas, a wedge of grilled pineapple. This recipe will make 2 generous cocktails.
4 oz. Appleton Estate rum
1.5 oz. lemon-ginger simple syrup (recipe below)
.5 oz. jalapeno simple syrup (also below)
Juice of 1 lime, freshly squeezed*
8 drops Jamaican jerk bitters
I hate fussing over the garnish for a drink, so here’s how I saved time on our second round of this one. I cut the lime in half, then stole a slice for garnish from the middle before squeezing the halves into the cocktail mixing glass. Done.
Combine the rum, syrups, lime juice and bitters. Add regular ice cubes and stir for 20 seconds, until the mixing glass looks frosty. Strain over giant cubes into double old-fashioned glasses and garnish with slices of lime.
Lemon-ginger Simple Syrup:
Bring 1 cup water to a light boil, then turn off heat. Steep 4 lemon-ginger herbal tea bags in the hot water for about 2 minutes, then remove and squeeze the tea bags (discard them). Add 1 cup sugar to the hot tea blend, and stir until dissolved (return to heat a few minutes, if necessary). Cool completely, then pour into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge a couple of weeks. For this syrup, I use Bigelow brand lemon-ginger tea.
Jalapeno Simple Syrup:
Bring 1 cup filtered water and 1 cup sugar to a light boil over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and syrup begins to lightly boil at the edges. Add 2 small chopped jalapeno peppers and stir, cooking about 2 minutes at low heat. Turn off heat, cool completely, strain jalapenos (reserve them for another use, if desired) and keep syrup in a covered jar in the fridge up to 2 weeks.