Mark Bitterman: “My main advice is: do not use bitters according to the recipe”

Mark Bitterman: “My main advice is: do not use bitters according to the recipe”

Mark Bitterman: “My main advice is: do not use bitters according to the recipe”

Mark Bitterman: “My main advice is: do not use bitters according to the recipe”

“Look, the small bottles here are filled with bitters and the bigger ones with amari”, Mark Bitterman gives an online tour around his house in Portland, where every shelf and corner are taken by his bitters collection, the biggest one in the world. He talked about his two universal interests, his bar, and truthfully answered the question, whether his real last name is Bitterman.

Mark, please tell us at what point did your interest with bitters begin?

Since the time when I was a kid, I loved making cocktails for my parents and their friends. Obviously, I didn’t drink them myself, but I loved mixing them. Much later when my dad began taking me to bars, I fell in love with this culture. I loved the role that it played in people’s lives; I loved the mood of bars. That’s why in the beginning I took interest in cocktails. I liked the simple and traditional cocktails that had only three ingredients. But I understood that you can easily play around with them by changing one of the ingredients. For example, Manhattan is made with vermouth, bourbon, and bitter. In this case bourbon is not the main ingredient. Vermouth is a bit more important, but bitter is the main ingredient here. I made this discovery pretty early in life when I was just 20 years old. And from there I took interest in experimenting: what will happen if bitter was replaced? That’s why I started to look for other kinds of bitters and make them myself.

I got serious with collecting bitters, when I decided to open The Meadow shop in 2006. At that time my home collection could not even be called as such, since it included only couple of simple bitters. However, I was discovering new types of bitters from different countries for my shop and some of them stayed in my home, others I sold. At this point, I have more than 600 types of bitters and they take up all of the corners of my home! In my shops I sell around 200-250 types of bitters.

You also take interest in salt. You collect many different types of it from different parts of the world and even describe it in your books. Why salt and bitters? What is the connection between them?

This is a good question. I always love to compare bitters with salt. Bitters play two roles in cocktails. The first one is to enhance the taste of a drink and make it special. Second role is to add the finishing touches to a cocktail and give a more complicated structure. Salt does the same thing to food. It opens up the taste of ingredients, underlining them. Salt makes any dish tastier. So salt and bitters have a similar role, but they do it differently.

Mark, can’t avoid this question. Is Bitterman your real last name?

(laughter) Yes! This is very weird, but it is my last name from birth. I don’t even know if it influenced my interest with bitters in any way. It is hard to say how people find their interests that are so closely related to their last name. However, for me this is a symbolic and interesting coincidence.

How and where do you find new bitters?

Most often I find them with bartenders. I go to bars, try different cocktails, and ask questions about which bitter did the bartender have added to my drink. Besides, often strangers just send me bitters. This is fantastic, sometimes I open my mailbox and find there a new bottle of a bitter.

How do you decide which bitter to sell and which not to sell?

At home I have bitters that are interesting from a collection point of view, but they are not good for consumption and this I understand objectively. I keep them for variety. There are also bitters that are very hard to get your hands on or really old ones. For example, I have a bitter that was made in 1910-1920s. I bought it at an auction. I can’t sell those types of bitters. I try to find the most powerful samples for the shop. Bitters are somewhat expensive: from 10 to 30 dollars per a bottle, sometimes more. I think that if you buy an ingredient for that kind of money, then it must be a very strong one. I don’t like and neither do I understand weak bitters. They are pretty useless. That’s why the main criterion is that a bitter must be balanced.

If you add bitter to a drink, then it shouldn’t only give off an aroma. It must intensify the aroma and the taste of the drink as well. If you have to use half a bottle for this, then it’s a bad bitter.

Which is your favorite bitter?

It’s like with salt, for different products I choose different kinds. Same with bitters, I choose them according to the drink. One of my favorite is grapefruit. And I know only 2-3 people who love it as much as I do. All of the grapefruit bitters differ one from another. One of them I add to Apple Cider, second one to dry martini, and another one I use for dark and strong cocktails like Negroni.

Please give advice on the use of bitters.

To better understand bitters, first you need to decide, which style of bitters you prefer. Rich and fruity or bitter and sour, out of all of the different tastes you need to pick your favorite. It is even more important which aroma you prefer.

I think that at home you need to have at least 3-4 aromatic bitters with one aroma that is dominant. And couple of citrus ones, like yuzu and lemon. I always use a lot of lemon and grapefruit bitters. In a drink they give off more citrus aroma, then the orange ones, that’s why they are more in demand. You can do a lot of interesting mixes with the use of citrus bitters, that’s why they are irreplaceable!

At home you can also find use for a lavender or rosemary bitter. For example, I love chocolate bitters. The interesting part is that they don’t just add a chocolaty taste, but also complexity and fullness. And this is a pretty unexpected fact. I am not a fan of chocolate drinks, but I often use chocolate bitters.

And how many bitters should there be in a bar?

The minimum is 20 bitters. Each bartender must search for new tastes and come up with new cocktails, that’s their job. You can endlessly play with the ingredients and proportions, but the easiest way to get a new cocktail is to change a bitter or their combination. At first I was interested in making cocktails by following traditional recipes and only changing the bitter. That’s why I think that a bar’s collection should have as much bitters as it is possible to find. If some of them turn out to be weak or strange, then throw them away and free the space for new and more interesting ones.

Are there any must-have bitters for each bar?

In my book «Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari» I describe 500 different bitters. All of them are classified by their family: nut, coffee, chocolate, citrus, aromatic, and fruit (cherry or apple) bitters. And I think that it’s important for each bar to have one from each family.

For example, one time I made a cocktail with apple juice even though I don’t like it. But I added an apple bitter to it and the cocktail turned out to be excellent! The more bitters you have, the more opportunities you have to make original and different cocktails, intensify the taste or dramatically change it.

Are there any rules in the use of bitters?

The main guideline is to use a lot. In a lot of recipes they write add 3 dashes of a bitter. And when I try this cocktail, then I don’t even understand which bitter is in it and what’s the idea behind it. That’s why my main advice is: do not use bitters according to the recipe. However, it is important to remember that bitter won’t only open up the aroma of ingredients, but also will add its own. That’s why it is important to add bitter while tasting the cocktail, since there will be a point, when you might have too much of it. I prefer a lot of bitter, but this is my subjective opinion and my personal taste. That’s why when I make a cocktail for someone else, I add enough bitter for it to open the aroma, add complexity and fullness to the drink, add an interesting note, but not to take the center stage.

How do you understand that there is enough bitter?

You have to try and experiment all the time. Make a cocktail without bitter and try it. Add a bit of it, and then try again. Three dashes – try it, three more – try again and you will definitely understand when you went overboard.

Same thing with salt, you gradually add it to a sauce and at some point you realize that if you just a bit more, than it will be too much.

Do you use bitters only for cocktails or also for food?

I love to use bitters in food. It is the easiest way to add an unusual flavor to it. For example, in salad dressings bitter adds a pronounced flavor. For ideal dressing you only need three simple ingredients: salt, bitter, and acid (lemon juice) – it’s fantastic!

From experience tell us about the most interesting combinations in food with bitters?

One time a very famous chef from San Francisco was making a dinner for us. He made a wonderful chicken pot pie.  When I tried it, I said that it tasted very good, but it will be even better if you add couple of drops of cardamom bitter. The dish has totally transformed! It was the most amazing dish that I ever tried in my life thanks to couple of drops of a bitter! It was the most powerful transformation that I will never forget.

The second story is from a chocolate master class when we added a mint bitter to the chocolate and got an incredibly interesting taste!

Does the use of bitters differ in different countries? 

Absolutely. I was pretty surprised when I found out that all bars in Warsaw use a lot of bitters. Because generally in Europe they make classical and simple cocktails. But gradually the situation is changing and the interest towards experimenting, that is inherent to America, is now spreading across the world. Especially this is notable in Western and Eastern Europe.

Tell us a story about a bar or bartender that better than others uses bitters?

I have a funny reply to that: it is my bar The Solo Club in Portland, which I opened a year ago. We have a huge collection of bitters and amari that we often find an unusual use for. On the menu there are variations of classical cocktails with different bitters, and also drinks that are inspired by my travelling, I always bring back interesting recipes. Come and try it for yourself!

By Kateryna Mykhailenko