The Search for Grown-Up Soft Drinks: Cocktail Bitters

Illustration: Secret Sauce.

Not being cocktail drinkers, and neither of us having grown up in cocktail drinking households, we had never tasted Angostura bitters until a couple of months ago.

We’d heard the name, and seen the rum­pled paper pack­ag­ing on the back shelf in pubs and bars, but did­n’t real­ly under­stand what bit­ters are.

Then, as we exper­i­ment­ed with ‘mock­tails’, we came across a few recipes online that sug­gest­ed using bit­ters to add com­plex­i­ty to alco­hol-free drinks.

Angostura bitters label.

We were a lit­tle scep­ti­cal – how much dif­fer­ence can a few drops of this stuff pos­si­bly make? – but, no, these cock­tail types know what they’re talk­ing about.

Five drops in just a glass of water gives it a mys­te­ri­ous, spicy, med­i­c­i­nal depth, and it mag­i­cal­ly ‘grownupi­fies’ any soft drink. They’re some­times described as the salt and pep­per of cock­tails which is a good anal­o­gy.

Of course that start­ed us think­ing.… What if we added bit­ters to beer?

We’re not the first to have this idea, obvi­ous­ly, and John Verive’s 2016 notes at Paste Mag­a­zine are inter­est­ing:

I thought the grape­fruit bit­ters-spiked IPA would sat­is­fy a grape­fruit IPA drinker dis­mayed at only hav­ing ‘reg­u­lar’ IPAs to choose from… but it was in the Amer­i­can light lager that the bit­ters showed true promise… Adding pun­gent bit­ters to the fizzy, insipid light lagers com­plete­ly changes the drink­ing expe­ri­ence. The scent of cit­rus oils over­pow­ers the lager’s faint aro­ma of apple skins, and the addi­tion­al bit­ter­ness bal­ances out the brew’s fin­ish. Sub­tle botan­i­cal fla­vors add com­plex­i­ty to the one-dimen­sion­al beer, and the grape­fruit bit­ters specif­i­cal­ly give the impres­sion of clas­sic Amer­i­can hop vari­eties.

We had a spare can of Cam­den Hells and so decid­ed to try spik­ing it with Angos­tu­ra.

A quick shake – four or five drops – revealed one imme­di­ate prob­lem: the bit­ters sat in the foam, turn­ing it orange-pink, but did­n’t make it through to the body of the beer. A quick stir with a spoon (not ide­al with beer) solved this prob­lem.

The aro­ma was intense, more so than in oth­er drinks, adding a fruity, cin­na­mon note.

It tast­ed… Weird. Pla­s­ticky, fake, chem­i­cal. As things went on, though, it became mor­eish, empha­sis­ing the beer’s bit­ter­ness and giv­ing it a Christ­mas char­ac­ter. We reck­on it would have worked bet­ter with a dark­er, rich­er beer rather than stan­dard lager; we’d also rein in it a bit – one or two drops, bare­ly detectable, would prob­a­bly be about right.

Grapefruit and Hops bitters.

It was cer­tain­ly inter­est­ing enough to make us think that we ought to get some grape­fruit and/or hop bit­ters. We’ll let you know how that goes.

3 thoughts on “The Search for Grown-Up Soft Drinks: Cocktail Bitters”

  1. The nor­mal way of using Angos­tu­ra is to pour into the emp­ty glas, swirl it around to coat the sur­face and pour away the residue before adding the alcoho/mixer. I’d expect to do the same if try­ing some­thing sim­i­lar with beer.

  2. Although know­ing of the prod­uct, we first came across its seri­ous use in Trinidad & Toba­go, where a few drops are added to a local dark rum – a splen­did com­bi­na­tion. I am not sure that adding it to the cold Mack­e­son which pre­ced­ed it would have been a worth­while exper­i­ment.

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