Mixologists have long had a secret behind their bars that most casual drinkers aren’t aware of: small bottles of cocktail bitters. Bitters are intensely aromatic combinations of herbs and spices which give unique flavor profiles to mixed drinks, and they’ve been an important part of cocktail culture since its beginning. In fact, the earliest written definition of a cocktail, from back in 1806, was “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits … sugar, water, and bitters.” You only add a few drops of bitters to a drink, but Bill York, son of a Santa Fe chef, is betting his business on them.
York is owner and operator of the Bitter End Bitters in Santa Fe, which manufatures a line of uniquely flavored bitters, including Mexican Molé, Thai and the most popular, Memphis BBQ.
Creating unusual and interesting flavors is only one hurdle his business faces; another is educating consumers as to what his product is actually for. While cocktail geeks know that a bar isn’t complete without bitters, common knowledge about them is limited at best. That means Bitter End’s market is confined, for now, to the craft bartenders—mixologists--who invent custom cocktails with fancy names like “Glorieta Gaucho Mary,” the “Barbequed Iguana,” or the “Green Monk.”
Imagine cooking a dinner without spices: no salt, pepper, paprika or parsley. The lack of those subtle flavors will mean your dish tastes flat. Mixologists see cocktails the same way. A Manhattan cocktail, which is whiskey, vermouth and bitters, is bland without the two dashes of bitters the recipe requires. The taste is subtle but essential, just like salt in soup.
“I think people just like to play,” says York. “Every bar can now create something that’s totally unique and having a great arsenal of bitters is essential for that.” The recipe for an Old Fashioned cocktail is always bitters, sugar and whiskey, but varying the bitters can change the flavor considerably. How about a Mumbai curry or a Mexican molé Old Fashioned instead? “We live in an age where people want to put their own unique stamp on things,” York says.
York says that his product is most popular in big cities with strong craft cocktail cultures, like New York, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. He’s seen a strong response in the South, too: “People are passionate about food in Georgia, for instance, and so it’s not a surprise that it affects their cocktail preferences.”
York says that there has been an interest in a wider variety of bitters flavors in the craft cocktail scene for the last six or seven years, but that interest has only recently begun to affect liquor store shelves and home bartenders. Bitter End is available internationally as far away as Hong Kong, and York is continuing to market his business in the hopes of making bitters more commonplace worldwide: “I really enjoy the synergy of being both in New Mexico and a part of the new craft cocktail culture, and it’s easy work because I love it so much.”