There was a time when the question "Could I have a bitters and soda?" meant only one thing: The server or bartender asking was hungover as hell and wanted a gentle respite from the pain. How times have changed. With the emphatic revival of cocktail culture in recent years, we've seen the emergence of supergeeks fixated on all facets of alcoholic esoterica. The world of bitters is a prime example. Once considered nothing more than seasoning, barkeeps now obsess over the flavors and varieties of bitters almost more than the base spirits. Most popular are two types: aromatic, one of the many back-bar eye droppers full of concentrated flavor used a dash at a time, and potable, the drinkable-as-is selections such as amaro (Italian for bitter).
Like most things alcohol-related, bitters started as a medicine. High-proof spirits imbued with the beneficial properties of certain herbs, barks, flowers, and roots were often used in small doses to aid in digestion and treat other maladies of the physical being. Ironically, these same elixirs became the ingredients used to mask intensity and aid in the approachability of other distilled spirits. Add a little sugar and the first cocktail as we know it is born. So it was that bitters became forever tethered to the cocktail world. What we now consider aromatic bitters (Angostura, Peychaud's, Fee Bros., etc.) are literally the salt and pepper of drink making. Working as flavor binders and enhancers, these small bottles of goodness have become an invaluable part of the modern barkeep's arsenal. The varieties and flavors of bitters available commercially number in the hundreds, not to mention the countless proprietary house recipes most self-respecting mixologists produce on their own. From simple flavors like rhubarb and orange to the more outlandish such as chocolate mole, hopped grapefruit, or lavender-hibiscus, the use of a few drops of these potent extractions can make or break a drink. Think of a chef's spice rack. Aromatic bitters are very much the same idea. When working at our Bottle Shop, the first bit of advice I give would-be cocktalians is always, "Buy more bitters." Much less expensive than full bottles of booze, these beauties can be used interchangeably to drastically alter a single recipe again and again. A Manhattan with orange bitters is drier and less spice-forward than one made with Angostura, whereas Peychaud's bitters will bring forward hidden cherry and fruit notes.
Potable bitters are a completely different ball game. Any amaro-swilling barfly can attest to the gastronomical attributes of Picon, Campari, or Montenegro. For hundreds of years, most of Europe has understood the importance of liqueurs fortified with nature's most prominent digestive aids as an invaluable part of the dining experience. There are aperitivo bitters for making you hungry like Aperol and Suze, as well as digestivos, meal closers like Cynar and Fernet Branca — a personal fave. The recent draw around bitters has also inspired award-winning spirits producers here in the States, such as the Leopold Bros. and Breckenridge Distillery, to make their own New World-style bitters, further diversifying the selection. Even Jägermeister, the king spirit of nightclub drinks, is a not-too-distant cousin to the amaro family. Sip an ounce or so of any amaro after Thanksgiving dinner this year and try to argue that it didn't help with your food coma. Potable bitters are wonder drugs. Don't get me wrong, some bitters taste like rosemary charcoal wrapped in Naugahyde, but remember: They're for shooting, not for sipping, and mixing with them is much trickier than with their aromatic relatives.
I'm constantly amazed at the interesting and inspired house bitters selections at my beloved ATL watering holes. Navigating through the choices at Restaurant Eugene's bar or the rail at Leon's Full Service is worth a night at least. It's also resounding proof that the guys and gals of our bar scene are every bit as inventive and engaged as the chefs in Atlanta's most innovative kitchens. Barkeeps citywide are concocting bitters using local ingredients like pecans, sorghum, and kudzu that have begun to define our region as well as our drinks.
More and more, Atlanta is being recognized as a forward-thinking and rapidly evolving food-and-drink haven. I believe our willingness to try new, exciting, and occasionally unnerving options contributes to that reputation. Let's embrace these arcane but time-proven medicinal manifestations. Sometimes it's good to be bitter.
Greg Best didn't mean to bartend. The young would-be actor was living in Vegas and working at a restaurant to support himself when serendipity struck during a bar back shift. He quickly learned that everything he wanted in life could be found behind the bar — the ability to create drinks, entertain a captive audience, and full control of the set. He shifted his focus, moved to Atlanta, and is now the co-owner and resident mixologist for Holeman & Finch Public House, the unofficial hub of Southern cocktail culture, as well as H&F Bottle Shop.