Why so bitter(s)?: Breaking down bitters with Vail Valley mixologists  

The unrequited cocktail ingredient you don’t know you love

Katie Coakley
EAT Magazine
Leonora's Livin' La Piña Loca with Nordes Spanish gin, Montenegro and cinnamon-pineapple shrub.
Dominique Taylor/EAT Magazine

In the vast tapestry of the cocktail world, there exists an unsung hero — bitters. With their complex flavors and rich history, bitters have reemerged as a force to be reckoned with, captivating mixologists and enthusiasts alike. Beyond their role as key components in classic and modern cocktails, bitters also play a crucial role in the creation of aperitivi or aperitifs and digestivi or digestifs (depending on if you’re feeling Italian or French). But what are bitters and why should the summer revolve around them? Let’s explore the allure of these mutable mixers and discover why they deserve a prominent place in your porch-drinking plans.  

Breaking down bitters 

Bitters — the ingredient, not a personality trait — are concentrated infusions of aromatic botanicals, roots, barks and fruits steeped in high-proof spirits. Infused with an array of flavors ranging from citrus zest to exotic spices, bitters add depth, complexity and a delightful (hence the name) bitterness to cocktails. They act as a bridge between various components of a drink, harmonizing flavors and elevating the overall experience. Whether it’s a dash of Angostura or a bespoke blend created by a mixologist or distiller, bitters are the magic touch that can transform a good cocktail into an extraordinary one. 

One of the most recognizable and widely used bitter products is often referred to as “cocktail bitters,” which are intended to be added in small dashes. Among these, Angostura is probably the most well-known: Its intense orange-red hue enhances cocktails even when used sparingly.  

Whether it’s a dash of Angostura or a bespoke blend created by a mixologist or distiller, bitters are the magic touch that can transform a good cocktail into an extraordinary one.

The distinctive bitterness of Angostura is derived from the gentian root; other cocktail bitters employ various bitter-tasting botanicals like calamus, wormwood, cinchona or quassia to achieve their unique profiles. However, the recent boom in bitters has resulted in a diverse range of flavors such as orange, chocolate, creole and celery.  

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Chances are, you’ve enjoyed bitters in cocktails before — classics like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Sazerac have been on menus for at least a century. Fun fact: a German doctor, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, created Angostura bitters in 1824 in Venezuela, where he was serving as surgeon general for Simón Bolívar. But bitters really gained a permanent place in the pantheon of essential cocktail ingredients with the revitalization of a simple, refreshing, eye-catching beverage: the Aperol Spritz.  

Stoke and Rye’s Angles over the City with Angels Envy bourbon, Antica Carpano sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.
Dominique Taylor/EAT Magazine

Don’t worry, it’s Latin 

This popular Italian drink is an aperitivo, which comes from the Latin word meaning “to open”: a pre-meal drink specifically meant to whet your appetite. Made with Aperol, a bright orange, bittersweet liqueur with a low (around 11%) alcohol content, this refreshing beverage is typically consumed before dinner but can also be a perfect sipper for sitting in the sun.  

“There are a lot of different variations on the Aperol Spritz that you can do with orange juice or with grapefruit juice, just to bring in that tart sort of aspect along with the Aperol,” said Mitch Graff, bar manager at Vin48. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be with prosecco or Champagne, it can just be a combination of grapefruit and orange and lemon with Aperol and a little vodka.” 

Aperol is a member of what you might call “potable bitters,” a broad category of bitter liqueurs that includes Campari, Fernet, Jägermeister and many Italian sippables called amari like Cynar, which is flavored with artichokes. An amaro is traditionally made by infusing grape brandy with a mix of herbs, flowers, aromatic bark, citrus peel and spices before it’s sweetened and aged, sometimes for years. Each amaro has a unique —closely guarded, perhaps secret — recipe. It’s silky, like a liqueur, but also hits the basic tastes of bitter and sweet and is incredibly aromatic.  

The degree of bitterness in these beverages can range from gently invigorating to pucker-inducing and medicinal-tasting. There are hundreds of amaros created each year — Aperol and Campari are two of the most popular — and though most are used in small quantities, the trend towards creating cocktails with a larger percentage of amaro in the recipe is growing. But don’t let the idea of intensity turn you off: A great cocktail is well-balanced; these bitters just make the whole experience more interesting.  

Tavern on the Square’s May Day! May Day! cocktail with Vida mezcal, amaro, Aperol and orange juice.
Dominique Taylor/EAT Magazine

At ROAM in Eagle, Adrienne Sirianni-Cavallario offers up a zero-proof version called the “Lazy Italian.” Made with Ritual zero-proof Aperol, bittersweet orange, club soda and agave, Sirianni-Cavallario tops it with a blood orange-flavored CBD-infused sparkling beverage. “It’s a lazy Italian because of the CBD,” said Sirianni-Cavallario with a laugh. (It’s also offered full-strength with Aperol and prosecco).  

Tavern on the Square’s bartender Neil Flaherty mixes up a mean “Mayday! Mayday!” a boozier twist on the classic cocktail made with Del Maguey mezcal, amaro Montenegro, Aperol and orange.  

Leonora beverage manager — and house mixologist — Garrett Cosgrove draws on the bitter properties of amaro. His “Livin’ La Piña Loca” is made with Nordes Spanish gin, cinnamon-pineapple shrub and Montenegro, an Italian amaro. “ The Montenegro has a herbaceous cinnamon backbone that plays off the house-made shrub and floral herbaceous Nordes Spanish gin,” he said. “It gives the cocktail depth of flavor, bringing out a perfect combination and balance of fresh pineapple and warming cinnamon. Livin’ La Piña Loca tastes like a zingy pineapple punch with floral undertones, complemented by sweet and sour notes of the shrub.” 

Another popular option is the Negroni — a boozy blend of gin, sweet vermouth, a wine-based bitter, and Campari, another bitter aperitif. The addition of a few dashes of orange bitters lends a subtle complexity, enhancing the drink’s aromatic profile. Sipped slowly, a Negroni teases the palate, preparing you for the meal to come. Some local mixologists swap out the Campari for a different bitter spirit.  

For a classic version, Alpenrose in Vail offers the “Mountain Negroni” made with Monkey 47 gin, red vermouth and Campari. Leonora at The Sebastian in Vail has several cocktails that highlight bitters including the “The Rat Pack Negroni,” made with house barrel-aged gin, Meletti amaro, wine-based amaro Pasubio and Dolin Blanc vermouth. 

Vin48’s Dark Knotty with Elijah Craig rye, Carbots maple syrup, Lucano amaro and orange bitters.
Dominique Taylor/EAT Magazine

And now, for the digestion 

Just as an aperitivo helps prepare you for a meal, a digestivo is designed to aid digestion and provide a satisfying conclusion to the dining experience. Bitters, with their digestive properties, are a natural choice to create these post-meal libations.  

Digestivi can be traced back to monasteries due to their often herbal and botanical ingredients. And while aperitivi tend to be made from drier liqueurs, digestivi can be both sweet or bitter and typically contain a higher amount of alcohol than their pre-dinner counterparts. 

A classic digestivo is the Old Fashioned — a time-honored blend of whiskey, sugar and bitters. Yes, it’s often imbibed before dinner but it actually can aid digestion, settle the stomach and prolong the dining experience. And though the liquor of choice for digestive cocktails is usually whiskey or rye, don’t count out tequila.  

The Knotty Banana, the latest in a long line of plays on the Old Fashioned at Vin48 in Avon, is made with Elijah Craig rye, Tempest Fugit crème de banana and chocolate bitters. Rather than being overly sweet, this cocktail is perfectly balanced and dangerously sippable. 

At Stoke & Rye at the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa in Avon, the “Pasado de Moda” (which literally translates to “old fashioned”) combines Casamigos reposado, Los Vecinos mezcal, agave and Hellfire bitters (which is actually a shrub, but that’s another story).  

Another classic? The Manhattan. Similar to the Old Fashioned, this cocktail is whiskey-based and includes bitters but also incorporates sweet vermouth. Stoke & Rye’s riff on the Manhattan is the “Horse with No Name,” made with High West double rye, angostura bitters, vanilla bean and Fee Brothers cherry bitters.  

From their pivotal role in classic and modern cocktails to their contribution to the creation of aperitifs and digestifs, bitters have earned their rightful place as an essential ingredient in a mixologist’s toolkit and in a pre- or post-dinner beverage choice. Don’t shy away from the allure of bitters: Embrace their artistry, experiment with different flavors and allow them to transform your libations into extraordinary concoctions. Cheers to the remarkable realm of bitters, where bitterness becomes the gateway to extraordinary cocktail experiences. 

Montauk Seafood Grill’s Pink Sky cocktail with Lalo tequila, Campari, grapefruit juice and sparkling rose, topped with strawberry lemonade foam.
Dominique Taylor/EAT Magazine

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