Bitter is toppling sweet flavors on the cocktail menu, and the trend is still on the rise.
Is bitter the new black? The Institute of Food Technologists has listed bitter flavors as one of its top five trends to watch in 2015. Just like the fashionable color showing up on the runway, bitter can be found on menus across the country with growing regularity. On the plate it shows up in the form of bitter greens like brussels sprouts and kale. In the beer and non-alcoholic beverage segment, India pale ales and dark roasted coffees have grown in popularity, in part because of their bitter profiles. The latest incarnation of the trend can be found in a cocktail glass. Bitters, both homemade and purchased, along with Italian digestifs, aperitifs, and amaros, have grown in popularity on cocktail lists nationwide, helping introduce classic, bitter-forward cocktails like the Negroni, Sazerac, and Old Fashioned to a new audience.
“I think it’s a natural progression,” says Suzanne Miller of Novela in San Francisco. As bar director and general manager, she uses bitter flavors in cocktails and to flavor many of the seasonal punches that are regularly featured on Novela’s cocktail menu. Recently, the punch menu included a Negroni-inspired option made with Campari, an Italian aperitif made with herbs and berries, that is “not light on bitter flavor.” The Negroni, and plays on this classic cocktail, have been one of the top sellers in the bitter cocktail category of late.
Miller believes that when it comes to what is in vogue in the glass, diners’ tastes have followed bartenders’. “Guests absorb information that bartenders are going out and getting,” she says. As the craft cocktail movement has grown, so has diner interest in ingredients and techniques, and bar-goers often look to bartenders and mixologists for advice on what to drink next. Presently, this means an exploration of different aspects of bitter flavors and how to craft cocktails using this palate.
“There’s just an elevated understanding of cocktails among guests now,” says Madison Fraser, general manager of Reverb in San Francisco, a craft cocktail bar that focuses on using local and seasonal ingredients. She often finds that guests come to Reverb not only to enjoy bitter flavors in cocktails, but also to learn something new or to have a cocktail that they haven’t tried before. “I think fernets and bitters just lend themselves really well to cocktail culture. Bitter flavors and ingredients are another way to surprise guests and give them an experience that they maybe haven’t had before.”
The experience factor of Italian spirits and liqueurs that feature bitter flavors is undoubtedly one of the reasons that consumers are enjoying more bitter cocktails. In Italian culture, aperitifs are meant to be enjoyed before a meal while digestifs (which includes the increasingly popular amaro segment) are enjoyed after a meal, giving these beverages a sense of cultural authenticity that’s appealing to the modern diner.
That desire for a more authentic experience has led diners to search for bigger and bolder flavors. To understand why bitter is trending now, it’s useful to look at the cocktail trends of years past, particularly in 2012, right before bitter began to hit its stride. That year, cocktails that used flavored vodkas were all the rage, and many of those flavors were sickly sweet. It was easy to scan the liquor shelves of bars and find vodkas with flavors such as “birthday cake,” “Skittles,” or any other candy or fruit flavor. These spirits were fun and whimsical, but also packed a sugary-sweet flavor profile. In 2013 things changed for this category of spirit, with sales declining for these saccharine sips. That same year, whiskey began to grow in popularity.
In the quest for creating more balanced cocktails, bartenders and mixologists have found that bitter is a great element for offsetting other flavors. At The Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina, the cocktail list includes a “bartender’s choice” section where guests pick two flavors from options like “bitter,” “vegetal,” “sweet,” and “spicy,” among others, to create a custom drink. Bar manager and co-owner Joe Raya says that when guests select bitter, creating balance is still the top priority. “When people order the bartender’s choice of bitter and something else, we do go a step further and give them something extra sharp,” he says. Allspice dram, a liqueur made using allspice berries, adds a spicy counterpoint to bitter cocktails. Even when Raya is making other cocktails that don’t feature bitter as the primary flavor, he has found that the bitter flavor profile is still very useful. “A bit of bitterness helps round out a cocktail and gives it another dimension,” he says. The result? “Our guests enjoy bitter flavors whether they mean to or not.” Miller agrees. “It’s a balancing agent more than anything else.” At Novela, the bar staff uses bitters to balance out the bright acidity in fresh lemon or lime juice. As Miller puts it, using bitters “comes with the territory of using fresh ingredients.”
At Reverb, the Lion and the Mouse cocktail uses Cardamaro, an Italian artichoke-flavored digestif, allspice dram, gomme syrup (an old-school sweetener and thickening agent), bourbon, lime juice, and Angostura bitters. The result is an “astringent cocktail that has a bit of sweetness to it,” says Fraser. In a properly balanced cocktail, bitter works harmoniously with other flavors.
With so many different bitter cocktails, spirits, and liqueurs on the market, can we assume the trend is nearing its bitter end? Miller thinks not. “I definitely anticipate people wanting to explore this more,” he assures, adding that this trend appears to still be on the upswing. With so many bartenders discovering and crafting cocktails using bitter liqueurs, it’s pretty clear that this flavor will continue to trend on menus nationwide.