For purists, a cocktail without a dash of bitters would be as incomplete as soup without salt.
"Bitters are the seasoning, the salt and pepper of a cocktail," says Seattle-based Canadian bartender Jamie Boudreau. "It brightens up a cocktail, adds complexity and ties all the other ingredients together. If a cocktail is falling flat, nine times out of 10 it has to do with the bitters."
If that seems like a tall order for a few drops of intensely concentrated, herb-steeped hooch once sold as snake oil for whatever health problems ailed you, consider how many serious-minded bartenders, distillers and amateur aficionados are cooking up batches of this age-old ingredient.
At Toronto's BarChef, acclaimed mixologist Frankie Solarik has created his own pharmacopoeia of seven rye-based bitters - including cucumber, grapefruit, cola and coconut - that are lined up in jars on his smooth slate counter like an apothecary's collection of herbal tonics.
In Vancouver, Lauren Mote has built the entire bar program at The Refinery around her shelves of homemade vermouths and potent bitter potions fortified with a witch's brew of cloves, cardamom, cassia bark, licorice root, orange peel, rosebuds, Serrano chilies, heirloom tomatoes, organic cherries, cacao nibs and sundry secret berries, twigs and seeds.
And outside Victoria, on the Saanich Peninsula, master distiller Peter Hunt of Victoria Spirits has just released Twisted & Bitter, an orange-flavoured bitter that went on sale at the distillery last month. Wine and spirits writer Jurgen Gothe says that as far as he's been able to determine, this is the first Canadian brand of commercial bitters made since the sixties.
Why is everyone suddenly sweet on bitters? You have to know your history.
"By definition, a cocktail isn't a cocktail without bitters," says Mr. Boudreau, one of Playboy's Top 10 American mixologists for 2009.
Or at least that was the prevailing school of thought during the golden age of the cocktail, when bitters were one of four essential ingredients in such classic cocktails as the Sazerac, Manhattan, Old Fashioned and the original Martini, the Martinez.
No one knows exactly who discovered, or how, that these bittersweet elixirs - a distillation of herbs, seeds, roots and citrus in alcohol or glycerin, once widely sold as patent medicines to aid digestion - made a dandy complement to bourbon, gin and whisky.
But by 1806, when the word "cocktail" first appeared in print (in a publication called The Balance and Columbian Repository), it was described as "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters."
A century later, the bitters market faced a major shakedown when the U.S. Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906 made it illegal for companies to falsely advertise a product's medicinal properties. Bartenders then became the main purveyors of the tonic.
As Mr. Boudreau explains, bartenders at the time were artisanal craftsman. They didn't just make their own bitters, but also their own spirits. Then came Prohibition, "which [is]a lot to blame for all the horrible drinks we've been drinking for the last 50 years," notes the Montreal-born bartender, who began making his own bitters five years ago while working at Vancouver's Lumière restaurant.
"Many of those artisans switched jobs or left the country," he continues. "When Prohibition was repealed, all that knowledge had pretty much disappeared."
But now bitters are making a comeback. With the revival of classic cocktails, there's a growing breed of modern mixologist who looks back to that golden age for inspiration.
"Tastes are changing," says Mr. Solarik, who describes his Toronto bar program as classic meets molecular new school. "People want a more sophisticated experience. We're getting back to all those old flavours."
Unfortunately, many of those old flavours are hard to come by. Aside from Peychaud's and Angostura, only a handful of retail stores in Canada sell any of the newer U.S.-made bitters, such as Regan's, the Fee Brothers and Bitter Truth.
"That's why some of us are making our own," Ms. Mote explains. Besides distinguishing her bar program from all the others in town, her homemade bitters allow her to control the quality of ingredients that go into her drinks. She uses only organic fruits, vegetables and herbs in her bitters, most of them sourced from the Okanagan Valley.
Mr. Solarik agrees that control is crucial, since many of the commercial products use artificial ingredients or excessive sugar. "By making my own bitters, I am able to control every step of the process. Say I want to create a new cocktail with my coconut bitters. After infusing them for three or four weeks, I can take it out and taste it. If there's not enough cinnamon flavour, I can filter the liquid, reintroduce more cinnamon and steep it for another week."
Some are even more meticulous. Mr. Boudreau publishes the website spiritsandcocktails.com, which leads curious cocktail connoisseurs through the finer points of making bitters, separating each ingredient, macerating them separately and then blending the strained liquids until the desired flavour profile and level of bitterness is reached.
He wouldn't cut a single labour-intensive step, he says. "Making bitters is no different than making whisky or wine."
Special to The Globe and Mail