Intelligent Bartender

Archive for February, 2009

The Bitter Truth

by on Feb.17, 2009, under Mixology

Human Tongue Taste Receptors

Human Tongue Taste Receptors

I’ve been bartending for more years than I’ll mention in this article, and to be honest, it was years before I ever even opened a bottle of Angostura Bitters. While working in Australia, I was introduced to Bitters as one of the ingredients in the hangover cure trifecta, the lemonade-lime and bitters. Lemonade (or 7-up to those of us who live in the western hemisphere) lime cordial, and the magic elixer – Angostura bitters, to settle the stomach.

It wasn’t until years later that I started using bitters in cocktail applications, and only upon reflection on the original LLB that I realized the phenomenal difference that adding bitters to a cocktail would make.

When you consider a traditional balanced cocktail like the Cuba Libre (rum and coke) there are four main elements which lead to the balance, and make the cocktail a bestseller.

Cuba Libre hits Sweet and Sour Taste Buds

Cuba Libre hits Sweet and Sour Taste Receptors, scoring 2 out of 4.

The Cuba Libre has

1. A strong element (Rum)

2. A weak element (Ice/water) balances the strength of the rum

3. A sweet element (cola)

4. A sour element (lime) balances the sweetness of the cola.

When you balance a cocktail based on these two axes, (strong vs weak and sweet vs sour) you end up with a drink that hits on both the sweet and sour taste receptors on the human tongue. Because this drink hits a total of two taste receptors we’ll rank this drink a 2.

Whisky Sour with bitters hits Sweet, Sour, and Bitter Receptors on the Tongue

Whisky Sour with bitters hits Sweet, Sour, and Bitter Receptors on the Tongue scoring 3 out of 4

Take another classic, the Whisky Sour, which also has the makings of a great balanced cocktail. Even though it’s name sake is Sour, the addition of sugar or simple syrup is essential to balance this drink and make it palatable. Most bartenders would make this cocktail with a measure of Rye or Bourbon, simple syrup and fresh lime juice. However if you look at the classic and sometimes forgotten recipe it calls for two dashes of Angostura (Aromatic) Bitters. Why the bitters was removed from the recipe is a mystery, I’m willing to bet it had more to do with laziness and lack of education than anything else.

Angostura aromatic bitters are the best selling bitters worldwide, and the product is excellent. They also make a great Orange Bitters which works well in Cosmopolitans, Negronis, Margaritas, or pretty much any other recipe containing Campari, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Triple Sec, or Blue Curacao. The bottom line is when you add bitters to a beverage it takes the drink to a completely different level, simply because you’re accessing a completely new group of taste receptors on the tongue.

The Margarita with Orange Bitters hits, Sweet, Sour, Salty, and bitter taste receptors for the most intense sensory experience.

The Margarita with Orange Bitters hits, Sweet, Sour, Salty, and bitter taste receptors scoring 4 out of 4 and rewarding the drinker with the most intense sensory experience.

Drinks like the Margarita work on a similar level, because they take the balance of sweet and sour and add the salty rim, which hits a third group of receptors; sweet, sour and salty. Add to that a few dashes of the Angostura Bitters and all of a sudden you have a cocktail that hits all four of the major taste receptors on the tongue, and provides the drinker with an unparalleled taste experience.

There are a ton of other options in terms of bitters, and if you’re really interested in taking it to the next level, you can always go ahead and make your own with your choice of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. When I was at Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco last fall the bartender had a great homemade Pineapple and Black Pepper Bitters.

Angostura isn’t the only Orange Bitters manufacturer. One of my favourite mixologists, Gary Regan, created Regans Orange Bitters #6 (which means that the 5 previous attempts weren’t up to Gary’s standards.) Stirrings also has a good Blood Orange Bitters, and La Fee produces, among a smorgasbord of other flavoured bitters, a West Indian Orange Bitters. Other flavours include Grapefruit, Peach, Lemon, and Mint bitters, and of course, no collection of bitters would be complete without Peychaud’s Aromatic Bitters, which has the some similarities to Angostura with a big red fruit flavour.

Bitters are a great addition to any bar program, and in terms of adding taste to a cocktail, they are the best value for money investment a bar can make. A few drops makes a HUGE difference.

A selection of bitters from Fee Brothers

A selection of bitters from Fee Brothers

For a great selection of proprietary bitters point your browser to
Angostura Aromatic Bitters

Angostura Aromatic Bitters

For some inspiration creating your own homemade bitters, there are a great selection of bitters recipes at Darcy O’neil’s blog at

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The Magnificent Seven and Zack is Back…

by on Feb.12, 2009, under Mixology, The F Word

Just a quick post to mention two of the coolest videos I have seen in a long time.  The first is an assembly of 7 of my favourite mixologists who got together and shot a video that has to be seen… Check for Gary’s measured pour!  It’s a classic!  I had the privelage of attending a spirited dinner in New Orleans last summer where Gary was making drinks, and can give a first hand testimonial that he has a heavy hand.

The Magnificent 7 – some of my favourite Mixologists in action!

The second video is of Zack Prohaska who has been in Osaka, Japan for the past 3+ years, honing what I can only describe as, the most flair talent Canada has ever seen.  I’m proud to say that Zach was one of my first students, years ago, but the success is his, he’s certainly come light years past anything I ever taught him… In the immortal words of Mick Hasler “Goodonya Zack!”

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