Taste: Spirits: Sipping Savant: Getting Bitter

The secret ingredient in favorite Philadelphia cocktails isn’t so elusive anymore

A few months ago, word came out of Trinidad and Tobago that there were financial problems for the company that has produced Angostura Bitters since the 1800s. Just five years ago, few would have noticed. But in our current retro-cocktail-crazed culture, a bitters shortage was big news — with everyone from the Sun to the Wall Street Journal to your favorite Philadelphia bartenders.

 “With the resurgence of classic cocktails, bitters have once again become indispensable,” explains Oyster House bartendrix Katie Loeb. “It’s like chefs using different salts. They just add that little je ne sais quoi.”

In their most basic form, bitters are a highly concentrated alcoholic beverage flavored with a bittering agent, like bark or root, and with some combination of herbs, spices and citrus. But these days, with bartenders constantly looking for the new and different, you can find countless varieties, including rhubarb and chocolate.

“It’s pretty cool. They’re coming out with new ones all the time,” says Loeb, whose favorite use is a single drop of orange bitters in a gin martini: “It’s my secret ingredient. It just kind of wakes it up.” Other usual classic-cocktail suspects, like Southwark, Chick’s and APO — where various bitters are literally dispensed via eyedropper, for manic precision — are similarly bitters-happy.

Those of us who fancy a proper cocktail at home now have easy access to this important element. At Di Bruno’s, you’ll find bitters from the well-known manufacturer Fee Brothers, in traditional as well as atypical flavors, like mint and grapefruit.

One surprising enthusiast presides at Walnut Street’s Rum Bar, where owner Adam Kanter finds that the, well, bitterness in bitters is a welcome complement to the sweetness of rum. Kanter uses orange bitters in his floral Pomelo Blossom, and peach and grapefruit bitters in his Fuzzy and Hemingway daiquiris, respectively. And lately, Kanter has perfected his own bitters recipes, of the chocolate, orange and tropical varieties. “It really allows me to tweak the flavor profile to exactly what I need for my drink menu,” he says. And so you can have your own bit of bitters, Kanter sells them for $10 the five-ounce bottle at his Rittenhouse bar.