There’s an evergreen point to be made that cocktail bitters are one of the most important parts of modern mixology, but perpetually one of the aspects that gets the least attention. Perhaps it’s the tiny bottles, and the corresponding fact that so many cocktails contain only a dash or two of each tincture, that makes the average drinker overlook how important they truly are. Regardless, having an eclectic variety of bitters on hand is one of the very best ways to take your cocktail game to the next level, because they allow you to easily modify classic archetypes and make them your own.
Bitters, though, have always had more use than just mixing with alcoholic cocktails. They’ve long been consumed by themselves in small quantities, and purported to have various medicinal benefits. For one thing, they’re great for settling an upset stomach or relieving the feeling of bloating following a big meal—my wife and I will often make a small glass of hot water with several shakes of various types of bitters in it, and the result is both effective and pleasant to drink—a few ounces of hot water with Angostura and orange bitters actually tastes a lot like Chai tea. The point is, bitters are more versatile than you may realize.
It stands to reason, then, that a company manufacturing bitters would find as many commercial uses for them as possible, while also finding a way to expound upon the supposed health advantages of consuming bitters. Enter, Hella Cocktail Co., producers of a wide range of bitters and mixers, who have also developed a new line of “non-alcoholic sparkling apéritifs” they’ve dubbed Bitters & Soda. Described as allowing “all the bubbly benefits of sparking Bitters & Soda with none of the sugar,” the line is marketed around being low-calorie, zero-sugar and flexible in terms of consumption—I appreciate that they manage to both court the non-alcoholic market but also offer highball recipes with spirits on each of the cans. After all, why limit yourself to a single market? As for the purported “anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial powers,” well … I’ll be focusing a bit more on flavor here.
Bitters & Soda is currently available in five flavors, and is fairly pricey, at $40 per 12-pack. With that said, they’re all strongly flavored and more than capable of standing out on their own—no one is going to be mistaking one of these for a flavored seltzer.
So with that said, let’s get into tasting the entire lineup.
Dry Aromatic is sort of the baseline for these Bitters & Soda recipes, essentially the equivalent of the company’s Angostura-esque style bitters in sparkling water. It actually is quite reminiscent of the nose of the aforementioned “bitters shots” my wife and I will make following meals, with expressive notes of orange peel and sweet baking spice.
On the palate, though, this one is indeed dry; it smells like it would be significantly more balanced by sweetness than it actually is. I’m reminded of Constant Comment tea, with the interplay between citrus and warm spice tones, with the dryness on the palate eventually making the segue into fairly intense bitterness. All on its own, I eventually found this bitterness sort of overwhelming; it is heavy on the cinnamon/clove notes, and the bitterness lingers on the palate for a very long time, effectively drying it out. The overall presentation, I thought, was improved somewhat by adding a splash of bourbon, which helped to soften the bitterness a little and bring out more oaky spice and tannin, but at the end of the day I still feel like these flavors would sing more with at least a mild addition of sweetness. I’m not opposed to drinking bitter liqueurs, ‘ala amaro, but this flavor is for people taking the “bitter” part seriously.
You can really feel this one checking off the health buzzword boxes, can’t you? Everyone knows that if you want a product to move for the health-conscious, you gotta find a way to get some turmeric in there. Regardless, Hella says this one combines “all the herbal benefits of ginger and turmeric” with the “bracingly bitter taste of Hella’s Zero-Sugar Bitters & Soda,” adding that “the bite of ginger is just enough to quench your thirst for something grown up and sippable without any alcohol.”
I was actually somewhat surprised to find that in comparison with the Dry Aromatic, the Ginger Turmeric flavor registers as fairly mild, with a more delicate ginger on the nose than I was expecting, coupled with the slight earthiness of the turmeric. On the palate, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people tasting missed the turmeric entirely, because it’s pretty subtle—pleasant and gingery, with just a little bit of sweetness, this one is considerably easier to drink on its own than the Dry Aromatic. Bitterness is mild to moderate, and the whole thing is rounded out nicely by a splash of bourbon, adding notes of toffee and vanilla. Of all the Hella Bitters & Soda flavors, this is not one that I necessarily would have expected to love, but it makes a really nice (and yes, “adult”) highball.
They say: “With notes of bright citrus peel, allspice, and bitter root, Lemon Lime Bitters & Soda is Zero-Sugar and completely nostalgic. Let it transport you to playful days on the beach. Mix with fresh lemonade for a simple and delicious Zero-Proof cocktail.”
This one, like the Ginger Turmeric, is kind of surprising on the nose for the fact that it’s only mildly citrus forward—one might expect citrus to be the defining element, but instead I’m getting more of the bitters poking out, with spice notes of allspice that combine with the lime to strongly suggest the Caribbean liqueur falernum. On the palate, it likewise finds itself more defined by spice and bitters than it necessarily does by citrus, but they make a nice, refreshing complement to the allspice-heavy profile. This one is especially pleasant with a splash of gin, resulting in something that tastes considerably more exotic than a two-ingredient highball. Probably my second favorite of the group, overall.
The Spritz Aromatic is very similar to the Bitters & Soda Dry Aromatic, with the implication of just a little more sweetness, coupled with the bitterness of gentian root and spices. Hella suggests mixing this one with practically anything, from gin or bourbon to just combining it with rose wine.
Personally, though, I found the spice profile of the Spritz Aromatic to be a bit on the overbearing side. On the nose, it’s fairly pleasant, with a lot of aromatic bitters, rounded out by sweet citrus. On the palate, though, the spice notes of the bitters go into overdrive, and this is extremely strongly flavored with elements of cinnamon and allspice. I’m reminded of Christmas cookies, in fact, but they’re like cookies where someone messed up TSP and TBSP while measuring spices. The bitterness, meanwhile, has been stepped back a touch from the Dry Aromatic, but overall I simply find the intensity of the spices to be too much.
There had to be at least one flavor in the bunch that suggested mixing with tequila, and grapefruit is the obvious candidate. Like the others, this is “boldly unsweetened” and contains some of the same gentian root and spices. The nose is fairly light overall, but anyone who drinks grapefruit seltzer—I consume a ridiculous amount of it—would have no trouble confirming on the nose that grapefruit is the flavor. Spice notes, thankfully, are much more hidden here on the nose than they are on something like the Spritz Aromatic.
On the palate, this one has pleasant notes of ripe grapefruit and mild herbaceousness, but is as dry as advertised, which suggests a certain character of grapefruit pith. Bitterness is moderate, and not too hard to tolerate on its own. Spice character is somewhat less up front than in the lemon-lime, and definitely much less assertive than the Spritz Aromatic. All in all, with a splash of tequila added, it’s a nice bitter agave aperitif, one that would be excellent in hot weather.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.