There are few containers that represent such untapped potential and boundless exploration in the drink world as an unopened bottle of bitters. Whereas a bottle of a base spirits—say rye whiskey, or rum, or gin—often implies traveling in a certain classical direction of taste and experience, you really can’t make the same assumption of a bottle of bitters. The same product can be used as the core component of an otherwise neutral mixed drink, or as an ephemeral nuance flitting around the edges of perception in a powerful “up drink” cocktail. They can be mixed into N/A drinks as well, such as seltzers and sodas, or used to add flavor to baked goods, juices or dairy products. A bottle of bitters, in fact, just might be the most versatile thing in your home bar.
And yet, even cocktail enthusiasts have a tendency to overlook the sheer variety of bitters available today, instead falling back on those that are universally always around. News flash: There’s more out there in the bitters world than Angostura, Peychaud’s and generic orange bitters—much, much more. And not only are these unique bitters available all around us, but they represent perhaps the easiest way to take one’s cocktail game to the next level, in terms of crafting unique drinks. How else are you going to add those pleasant, unusual spice notes to your beverage? Not with a base spirit. But with a spritz of Sichuan bitters? A few drops can transform your drink.
As such, we’re always on the lookout for new varieties of bitters, and recently ran across Minnesota company Dashfire Bitters, which produces quite a dizzying array. By our count, they produce at least 21 different varieties, from the omnipresent orange bitters to intensely specific flavors like star anise, clove and even bay leaf. The company describes their production method thusly:
The production process is done slowly, with real raw ingredients. The spirit is proofed down to a lower ABV before adding the botanicals. This requires a longer maceration time, but also allows MORE botanicals to be added to each batch. This, in turn, brings out fuller, richer flavors that enter the solution slowly, which builds depth of flavor. The alcohol used for maceration is made from local organic Minnesota corn. Dashfire cools their macerations to protect aroma and preserve flavor during the proofing process. We’re sure that no other bitters brand takes such measures to improve their product.
The proof, of course, is in the flavors, so we requested an array of bitters to taste for ourselves. The company sent five of the attractive, decently sized (100 ml) bottles to Paste in a variety of flavors, so let’s conduct a tasting, shall we?
I tasted each of these bitters varieties in one of my own, personal favorite ways to consume bitters—in small glasses of hot water, which brings out a tea-like quality to whatever bitters you might be drinking. Also: They work wonders on upset stomachs, so give it a try the next time you have indigestion.
This bottle is obviously meant to evoke the classical “aromatic bitters” style, of which Angostura is by far the most famous example—a complex, all-purpose blend of warm spices that are suitable for a variety of different drinks. As I’ve found in the past, these are often quite pleasant in hot water all on their own, contributing a chai-like spice profile.
Dashfire Old Fashioned Aromatic bitters hit with a big spice punch on the nose, highlighting clove and orange peel. I mentioned chai earlier, but what this really reminds me of is Bigelow’s classic Constant Comment tea in its combination of citrus and warm spices. Big orange notes are present on the palate, with some sweet cinnamon. “Warming” is the word, as everything about this particular flavor seems comfortably familiar, like a distilled hot toddy. These aren’t particularly exotic, but they’re quite pleasant.
On the nose, the most impressive thing about the grapefruit bitters is how unmistakably and genuinely “grapefruit” they are in their citrus quality—you would not mistake it for lemon or orange at all. Distinctive citrus impressions remind me of the ruby red grapefruit seltzer I’m fond of drinking as an alcohol replacement.
On the palate, this variety is a little bit more genuinely bitter than the Old Fashioned Aromatic bitters, but also retain some sweetness, a hint of warming spice and a slightly briny/saline quality. They’re uncomplicated and not very complex, but this style of bitter really isn’t meant to be—it’s just supposed to encapsulate everything “grapefruit,” and it does that really well. Of all the flavors, this is the easiest to immediately grasp and wrap one’s head around.
Jerry Thomas was of course the nation’s first superstar bartender, the “father of American mixology” whose early work in evangelizing for cocktails has become the stuff of American drinking folk legend. These bitters are inspired by “the original 1862 formula,” and are described by Dashfire as “complex and sweet, featuring fresh lemon and orange, combined with rich and complex flavors like raisin and rosemary.”
To my palate, the Jerry Thomas bitters are partially in the same mold as the Old Fashioned Aromatic bitters, both being warm and spice-forward, but the J.T. bitters dial up the assertiveness across the board substantially. On the nose, these are big and aggressively spicy, with notes of nutmeg, cinnamon and orange. Here I actually do find myself thinking “chai,” as there’s a strong black tea-like maltiness to the bitters that contributes an especially warm impression. Caramel richness gives some some decadence to the profile, but surprisingly there’s also a greater impression of actual bitterness here as well—it’s simultaneously sweeter AND more bitter than the Old Fashioned Aromatic bitters, being just “bigger” in personality all around.
These strike me as some very interesting bitters, but probably ones you’d have to experiment with in order to find drinks they wouldn’t overpower.
The bitters we’ve sampled in this lineup so far have been custom-made and high-quality, but in the general mold of bitters we’ve sampled in the past. These last two, however, are quite a bit more unique. It’s hard to tell what exactly the base is of the Sichuan bitters, except that the inclusion of the Sicuan peppercorns affects it in a way that is both odd and quite novel.
On the nose, two things I wasn’t expecting are hitting me up front: Red fruitiness and a totally unexpected spearmint quality. On the palate it’s also interestly minty and herbal, which flows into fruity notes, before … aha, there’s the tongue-tingling quality you associate with Sicuan peppercorns. Everything about this bottle is interesting: It has none of the sweetness present in the Old Fashioned Aromatic, Jerry Thomas or Grapefruit bitters, and is instead quite dry and somewhat tannic, leaving a lasting astringency (and the tingling quality) on the tongue. I’ve never had bitters like this before, but I imagine they could be used in countless creative ways.
FYI? My girlfriend has already become a big fan of adding a squirt of these bitters to glasses of flavored seltzer waters or sodas. Just one more reason why bitters are a mocktail artist’s best friend.
I mean really, bay leaf bitters? What, are we adding this to a cassoulet or a beef stew? I couldn’t help but joke unwrapping them, but in practice they’re really quite interesting. On the nose, you obviously get the strong, spicy bay leaf quality you’re expecting, but it sort of segues from there into a resinous, almost piney impression with floral undertones. Smelling it repeatedly, it becomes more and more savory, and it struck me as slightly reminiscent of the celery salt I love on my Chicago-style hot dogs.
On the palate, the word “outdoorsy” seems to apply nicely. Bay leaf and celery herbaceousness blend nicely with wildflowers and earthy white pepper notes, and I was left suitably impressed by its weird profile. The bottle itself recommends using them in “Manhattan, boulevardier, blackthorn and dealer’s choice” cocktails, but I walked away thinking this might be an excellent companion to a sweeter G&T with a citrus-forward American gin.
Dashfire Bitters, if you’re curious, come in the lovely 3.4 oz (100 ml) bottles you see above, and are sold by a variety of online retailers. One note: I’ve noticed that they tend to be priced wildly differently (from $14 to $24 for the same 100 ml bottle) at differing retailers, so you may want to navigate around for the best possible deal, if you choose to seek these out.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident spirits geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.