Anyone who spends even a few minutes on Twitter knows that’s it’s rather cluttered. Its main export is white noise, and you can lose a lot of time sifting through the static. But amidst the abbreviations and attempts to cram as much meaning into 140 characters as possible, I occasionally come across a tweet that hits me with a +3 Hammer of Concise Truthiness. For example:
I realize it’s not earth-shattering – a man who has a business making fine bitters in the UK, tweeting about the product he makes. But to approach it in such a way is too dismissive. There is a cocktail renaissance of late, and bitters are an integral part of that event; were this not the case, he wouldn’t have much of a business making bitters, would he?
To look at it another way, the growing interest in well-made cocktails has led to the resurgence of bitters – but has the popular vernacular kept up with that surge? That was one of the topics that came up a few months ago, when I had the chance to meet & chat with Janet & Avery Glasser, the proprietors of Bittermens (makers of fine bitters, extracts, and spirits over here in the States). During the course of discussion, Avery lamented that despite the explosion of creative cocktailing, it seems that terms like “shrub” or “tincture” are still relegated to the realm of bartender jargon.
Remember when those “Shit __________s Say” videos were all the rage? The “Shit” video for bartenders contains the following perfectly-delivered, pretention-laden line: “it’s really more of a tincture.” It’s funny in context, but only works because very few know the difference between tinctures or bitters, outside of cocktail geeks.
Thus, to aid in the expansion of the popular lexicon, I present definitions & delineations of four cocktail modifiers you might see on a cocktail list:
For the moment, think of cocktail-mixing along similar lines as cooking or baking. Just as you might use extracts or spices in baking or cooking, you ought to be considering tinctures and bitters for your cocktails. Let’s start with the first one, tinctures.
Its entry in Merriam-Webster is very basic (“5: a solution of a medicinal substance in an alcoholic solvent”), but also provides us with some color, further defining a tincture as a “characteristic quality” or a “trace.” Hold onto those last two ideas for a moment.
The entry for tincture on Wikipedia gives us another starting point: “A tincture is an alcoholic extract (e.g. of leaves or other plant material)….” For cocktail purposes, it means I’ve put something flavorful (like rosemary) into high-proof alcohol, and now that alcohol smells/tastes like that something.
Putting it all together, a tincture is what you use when you want a trace or hint of a single (characteristic) flavor. When you want a single note added to a drink, this is what you go to. As an example, take the Longship, a cocktail I created for the Tasting Room where I work. It’s essentially an aquavit Sidecar, but with a few drops of kaffir lime tincture to give it an aromatic kick.
All I wanted was that single aromatic, which the tincture is perfect for. Now, when you want to add depth or complexity to a drink, you turn to…
We all know my good friend, bitters, right? This is the celebrity of the non-potable, alcohol-based cocktail modifiers. Bitters is the go-to bottle when you want to add nuance to a cocktail, tie the disparate flavors together, and finish it with some nice aromatics.
As an example: if you want to add a hint of chocolate to your cocktail, a cocoa tincture would suffice, as might any number of cocoa-based modifiers. If you’re looking to marry together the ingredients in your rum cocktail & add some depth to it, you’d do well to consider chocolate (or mole) bitters.
But what are bitters, really? First, we need to delineate between “potable” bitters (drinkable liquids, notably bitter liqueurs like Italian amari), and “non-potable” bitters (concentrated liquids, often used for “seasoning” a beverage or aiding in digestion). We’re focused on the latter liquid.
That still doesn’t quite get to the heart what constitutes a bottle of bitters. I can point you to two different recipes; they have very different flavor profiles, varying ingredient lists, but both are called rhubarb bitters. And they both are bitters, I suppose, though I might refer to the Imbibe recipe as… “really more of a tincture.”
The difference? For me, it’s the ingredients. Both have flavoring agents, but the Serious Eats recipe has more of a variety. Both use high-proof alcohol for extraction, but only the Serious Eats recipe has bittering agents (cinchona bark & angelica root). And that’s what I tend to look for when referring to something as ‘bitters’: complexity & bittering agents.
Examples of bitters in cocktails include…. Well, I shouldn’t need to spell that out. If you haven’t had a Manhattan, Martini, Martinez, or Old Fashioned made with bitters, go do that now. Seriously, now. These words aren’t going anywhere. In fact, let’s all take a break and mix ourselves a proper cocktail.
As you mix yourself a drink, let’s move on from our “seasoning” agents to a pair of ingredients that have their origins in how we used to prepare & preserve our food, starting with…
Okay, you caught me. I added ‘citrate’ to the list mainly to mimic the cadence of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That said, citric and other acids are an integral part of cocktails. Don’t believe me? Try this experiment:
Get a bunch of cocktail geeks in a single room (or forum), and ask them if a gimlet ought to be made with Rose’s lime juice. After the uproar dies down, you’ll find two schools of thought:
- No, fresh lime juice & simple syrup is preferable to anything artificial (i.e., Rose’s).
- True, but, a gimlet is only a gimlet when using lime cordial (e.g., Rose’s) – otherwise it’s just a gin sour.
In essence, the difference between the two viewpoints is acid. The gimlet is one of those drinks attributed to the British Royal Navy — and citric acid was used as a method to preserve the lime juice at sea. Thus, a “traditional” gimlet is one that contains acid beyond what’s in the lime juice.
But acid has more uses than just cocktail trivia & juice preservation. Citrates or acid phosphates can be used in beverages to provide a pleasant sour note, especially if you’re not using citrus (think the chocolate phosphate).
We were just talking about acids, right? Well, there’s one more that is becoming a mainstay of modern cocktails. Not surprisingly, it’s another old preservation method: the shrub.
I know, a ‘shrub’ sounds more like a Monty Python reference than a cocktail component. But back in the days when the United States was in its infancy, the shrub was all the rage. And by “rage,” I mean they didn’t have refrigerators to keep fruit from spoiling, so they resorted to various preservation methods, including vinegar.
That’s all a ‘shrub’ is – a fruit base, usually sweetened before adding vinegar. The flavors that a shrub provides to a cocktail can be surprising to those who view cocktails as primarily sweet, sour, or boozy. While a shrub may have sweet & tart elements, the acetic acid in the vinegar is going to also add a fermented/savory flavor, which can be shocking and ridiculously delicious.
Making a shrub is easy; if you can make a syrup, you can make a shrub. If you’re unsure about making syrups, no worries – that’s the next cocktail topic I’ll be tackling for the Recorder.
Otherwise, check out the Winter Shrub recipe from the boys at Bittercube at the end of this treatise about acidity & balance. Or perhaps the Spring Shrub from this illumination upon shrubs, depending on the season when you read this. And toast to the resurgence of bitters… and to its cocktail-modifying brethren, may they be jargon no more.