I've seen a new trend on the rise in the beverage industry. Culturally, our palates are changing. Once upon a time, sugar was a precious commodity and sweetness was a rare treat; but now, "I don't like sweet wines" is a phrase that I hear constantly, and it has never been easier for me to sell a bottle of brut nature Champagne on the promise that contains "the lowest amount of added residual sugar possible for a sparkling wine."
Zero dosage champagnes, extra-hopped IPAS, and amaros like
Fernet-Branca have never been more popular. Is it that sweet things are seen as corruptible and indulgent? Among all the possible flavors people can prefer to take the place of sugar (spicy or sour flavors that pack their own unique kind of punch), the appeal of bitterness eclipses them all. Perhaps it is related to our perception of what's healthy—the equivalent of choosing a salad bowl full of kale over a plate of cookies. After all, drinking alcohol in moderation and maintaining one's health are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the alcoholic preparation of roots, barks and spices known as bitters best represents the intersection between the recreational and restorative properties of alcohol.
Originally used as medicine from the time of the ancient Egyptians to the
Europeans of the Middle Ages and onwards, bitters are an intrinsic part of any cocktail, and play a major role in the current classic drinks renaissance. Angostura and Peychaud's are the two most commercially successful bitters companies today, but before Prohibition wiped any appreciation for handcrafted alcoholic beverages from the American consciousness, there were many more examples. In fact, arguably the first recorded mention of a cocktail, in an 1803 agricultural magazine called The
Farmer's Cabinet, specifically references bitters as an essential ingredient. So when I encountered a bottle of The Bitter Heart ($13), a small-batch cocktail bitters created by Meghan Henshaw of Ocotillo Herbals, I was immediately drawn to its herbal and unapologetically earthy taste, drinking it in soda water with little slices of orange and lime.
Too many modern bitters are fruity or clouded with additives that make them seem, well, not very bitter at all. Henshaw, however, makes two cocktail bitters (as well as two medicinal types, for digestive and immune support, respectively). The Bitter Heart, flavored with black walnut and hawthorn, is delicate and subtle, and could easily replace a dash of Peychaud's in any cocktail recipe. Her other offering, a cardamom molasses bitters, begins fragrantly spiced but transitions to a sweeter finish, due to the use of molasses in the rich syrup she makes for the sake of finishing her product into something pleasingly palatable. The Mighty Immune Support and Digestive Bitters are intensely mouth-puckering, though with ingredients like schisandra and devil's club (foraged by Henshaw herself), they have innumerable healthful applications, although I would advise drinking them on their own rather than throwing them in a Manhattan.
If ever there were a person uniquely suited to craft a proper tribute to the modern application of the ancient herbal medicine that is bitters, that person is Henshaw. She received her bachelor's of science in herbal science from Bastyr University, where her credentials included a focus on the historical uses of herbal medicines, in addition to biochemistry, pharmacology, ethnobotany, plant identification and research. Under her Ocotillo Herbals line, she also produces massage creams and teas and provides private consultations. She also works as a botanical researcher for ecological surveys, and this informs her perspective on crafting herbal concoctions.
"There's lots of intersections between how we treat the people around us and how we treat the environment; the attitude of, 'Am I in it to just make money,' or am I willing to be flexible," Henshaw says. "With herbalism, that's a really complicated dance." Her research helps her keep a finger on the pulse of conservation efforts, and she is mindful of the impact of sourcing ingredients. Thus, her bitters are a mix of traditional flavors like gentian root, and her own additions, sourced as sustainably as possible. There is a transparency to Henshaw's products that you definitely won't see in the likes of Angostura, the recipe for which is a famously well-guarded secret. Find Henshaw's bitters at Alembic Apothecary (1200 Hickox St., 310-403-6139) or online at ocotilloherbals.com.
Meanwhile, Henshaw's calling as a researcher and conservationist is the kind of work that often draws her away from making her handcrafted bitters, which means they'll usually be small in scale and limited in production. But maybe it's better that way.
Here's a simple cocktail suggestion, best suited to letting the flavors of the bitters shine:
The Old-Fashioned Bitter Heart
Place a sugar cube in the bottom of a tumbler and saturate with bitters (I use about three dashes.) Add a little water, and muddle until dissolved. Add ice and roughly two ounces of a spirit of choice (rye or bourbon would be best.) Stir and garnish with an orange slice.