I’m a sensory sort of guy. I can read about tasting notes and flavor descriptors, but at the end of the day what I really want to do is taste for myself, and take my own notes. So too am I a big believer in the value of tasting multiple spirits/cocktails/tinctures side by side in order to compare them in the most direct way possible. Memory, it should be noted, is a very unreliable thing for most people—you’re always going to get a better sense of what truly separates two similar spirits or drinks if you taste them one after another, rather than in different sessions.
And so, when German-based cocktail bitters/liqueurs company The Bitter Truth reached out to me with a ready-made concept for a tasting challenge, I was pretty much on board immediately. I don’t need an excuse to line up some cocktails next to each other and dive into comparison, but I think this is a particularly interesting avenue of exploration: Just how big a difference do bitters make in a classic cocktail, all other things being equal?
Specifically, we’re talking about the venerable Manhattan. It’s one of the simplest and most riffed-upon whiskey cocktails of all time. Anyone can make one—it’s literally just whiskey (rye or bourbon), sweet vermouth and bitters, stirred with ice. To whip up a Manhattan takes roughly 30 seconds. But how much does the drink change when the choice of bitters veers wildly in one direction or another?
That’s the basis of The Bitter Truth’s so-called “Manhattan Challenge,” and I was ready to play along. The company, which primarily produces a dozen varieties of bitters but also liqueurs such as falernum and flavored waters such as orange flower and rose water, suggests simply whipping up a pretty standard Manhattan recipe and swapping in several bitters from different categories: Aromatic, Fruity, and Savory. And so, I did exactly that, experimenting with three of the bitters varieties that seemed diametrically opposed.
Here are the results of that experiment.
Jerry Thomas (1830-1885) was of course the father of modern American mixology, and the author of the most important early bartending manuals. He is credited with creating a number of iconic drinks, but also with establishing many of the standards for ingredients a bartender should have on hand. One of those was aromatic bitters, of which these “decanter bitters” are one variety. That means they’re roughly in the mold of the Angostura Bitters you’re no doubt familiar with, possessing warmy spicy tones, but unique in their profile. The Bitter Truth describes them as “Very fruity and very bitter. Citrus and dried fruit aromas unite with the spicy and bitter flavors of cloves, Angostura bark, and cinnamon.”
The Manhattan sample I made with Jerry Thomas Own Decanter Bitters was undoubtedly the most conventional and familiar of the three, not that this is a negative. If you simply order “a Manhattan” at your average bar, it’s going to be made with Angostura or some other brand of aromatic bitters, so this is hardly a surprise. The resulting Manhattan possesses gentle spiciness that definitely hits on cinnamon, with hints of licorice, clove and Christmas cookies or gingerbread. It’s pleasantly rich, and to my palate these bitters didn’t contribute much in the way of true, balancing “bitterness,” but I rarely find that aromatic bitters do. Rather, it crafts a cocktail that anyone would instantly recognize as a Manhattan, if perhaps a bit more spicy than usual.
For the choice of “savory” bitters, I decided to go with celery, which seemed like it would be easier to work into the Manhattan formula than The Bitter Truth’s admittedly interesting Cucumber or Olive Bitters. The company describes these ones as “Very complex and exotic. The initial flavor of celery is dominant, leading into a complex palate with aromas of lemongrass, orange peel, and ginger.” They suggest using them in an array of “corpse reviver” cocktails such as the ubiquitous Bloody Mary, which makes sense given that the drink already comes garnished with celery in many cases, but also suggest that Celery Bitters may pair well with fresh and grassy spirits such as Caribbean rhum agricole, which is an interesting thought. Today, however, let’s see how they play as a contrasting note in a Manhattan.
My Celery Bitters Manhattan could scarcely be more different from the Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters cocktail, creating a drink that is substantially more dry and markedly more bitter. The nose is briny and more “fresh” in tone, with herbaceousness and hints of dill or coriander. On the palate, it’s night and day—these ones add an obvious celery flavor, as well as a resinous/woodiness, and a more substantial bitterness that makes for a much drier, less rich drink. I’m actually reminded less of the Manhattan and more of the popular Toronto cocktail, which combines Canadian whiskey with Fernet Branca to create a drier, more bracing drink.
All in all, this one is perhaps not quite my style, but I can easily admire just how distinctly different it is from the cocktail that came before. No one would taste these two Manhattans and think they were the same.
This was a safe choice on my part, perhaps, given that other fruity Bitter Truth bitters varieties include peach, lemon and grapefruit, but I wanted to see how the Manhattan made with classical orange bitters might compare to the other two samples in front of me. Orange bitters are of course a common choice for whiskey cocktails in general, and I often combine them with aromatic bitters when making Manhattan riffs at home. As for The Bitter Truth’s version, they describe it with the following: “It starts with fruity sweetness, quickly followed by a bitter taste. The aroma of bitter orange peel is in the foreground, completed by spicy flavors of cardamom, caraway, and nutmeg.” Let’s see how it does in a cocktail.
These orange bitters seem to produce a Manhattan that is very smooth, round and sweeter than the others. There are some nice citrus and stone fruit notes, but I’m finding the spice a bit more difficult to pick up, especially in comparison with the more bombastic Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters. The bitterness level here is a bit lower as well, making for a Manhattan that is very easy to drink, but not as challenging as the celery bitters version, or perhaps as complex as the decanter bitters version. It has more of a homogeneous quality—smooth, with no spikes of flavor sticking out.
A best of both worlds scenario, actually, might be the combination of citrus and aromatic bitters that I mentioned above. I suspect that will be the next experiment on my list, but this tasting succeeded at illustrating just how different a cocktail can be made via a few small dashes of bitters.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.