Bitters Man: The Storefront Revival of Amargo Aromatico
“Our job here is to get people to learn more about bitterness.” It’s a funny thing to hear from Avery Glasser, Hawaiian-shirt-clad and giddy behind the bar of Amor y Amargo, the pop-up bar and tasting room he and wife Janet opened to house a retail renaissance of bitters, not least among which is their own sought-after Bittermens “Very Small Batch” bitters line. With bar space shared by juggernauts and house-made potions alike, Glasser’s bitters are among the new wave of small-scale production, filling the void between classic and hyper-idiosyncratic. And his storefront, a cozy pseudo-apothecary housed in the triad cocktail den of Cienfuegos, is the first we’ve seen of its kind: a brick-and-mortar chapel of bitters revival, calling to the mixologist walk-in, vest-clad or otherwise.
Happy as we are to see Glasser preaching to the choir, we wonder if bitters really need another champion, especially in Manhattan. Spirit-forward drinks—dashed to death and depth with Peychauds, Angostura, and sundry house-made bitters—abound in cocktail dens, speakeasy holdouts, and faux dives nationwide. But even as they flow freely in this era of mixology one-upmanship, bitters are edging away from their original purpose in the cocktail. And like a Hollywood starlet or ‘tween Queen Bee, it’s their popularity that’s corrupting them.
“People overuse them,” says Glasser, “trying to make bitters the primary flavor.” Maybe a little bit of wrist-restraint could solve the bitters crisis? Not quite, because it’s not just a matter of too much bitterness. “There are a number of new small-batch producers of cocktail bitters who don’t understand what bitters are supposed to be,” says Glasser. What is that? Oh, yes, bitter. “Imbibe Magazine recently published a recipe for rhubarb bitters,” Glasser explains, “that, when you read the recipe, isn’t bitter. It’s a tincture.” Meaning it doesn’t have any of the essential ingredients—quassia, quinine, gentian, etc.—that give bitters (and thus cocktails) their “backbone,” as Glasser puts it.
That backbone is the backbone of the bitters industry. The first bitters iteration, the mighty Angostura, was developed as a remedy, concocted by an ex-pat naturopath in the humid port-of-call anarchy of Angostura, Venezuela. The bitterness was just a side effect, a botanical coincidence in the curing of maritime tummy aches (thank you Dr. J.G.W. Seigert). But bitters weren’t long for the medicine cabinet. With heavy maritime traffic and traveling potioneer salesmen to hock it, this grand pappy of all bitters made its way behind the bar, lifting phantom notes out of otherwise monotonous or misunderstood spirits. “It enhances all the flavors already in a cocktail,” says Dave Rotunno, current VP of marketing of Angostura parent company, Mizkan Americas, Inc. Almost 200 years later, it’s still in hot demand (ask anyone who survived the great Angostura drought of ’09).
But if bitters have strayed from their historic complexity and integrity, Glasser is among a small coterie of bitters businessmen and women looking to put them back in their rightful place and flavor profile. He’s just the first one doing it with a shop. Glasser welcomes any bitters to the shelves of Amor y Amargo. “As long as the bitters are being produced legally, contain no artificial ingredients, and are labeled in accordance to FDA regulations, we will endeavor to carry the products,” he says. “Unfortunately, this results in us only carrying a handful of products.” Glasser won’t carry Fee Brothers, for instance, because they use artificial ingredients.
The Bittermens brand lives up to its own standards, which are based in the old school integrity of Seigert’s original stomach remedy. “Our goal with Bittermens is to create flavors that enhance a cocktail in a manner similar to Angostura,” says Glasser, “which means that we have a similar level of bitterness and complexity in the base formula of each recipe, with different top notes.” That base is made classically by steeping “a variety of mostly organic herbs, spices, fruit peels, and essential oils” in neutral grain spirits. So even as Glasser and team experiment with a variety of flavor profiles out of their home base, a.k.a. “Bittermens Central” in Red Hook, every flavor profile plays upon a solid foundation.
In fact, it’s only with this kind of baseline integrity that Glasser can play. And, like any good barman, he does, especially since bartenders around the country are calling him up with special requests. The ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters, now part of the regular lineup, came out of a cordial request—literally, he wanted something like Falernum—from Brian Miller. But even with varieties like habanero-spiked Hellfire Shrub (which sparks up the boozy complexity of Glasser's "Francaise Fourplay") and Orange Cream Citrate—the non-bitters approach to orange flavoring in a cocktail—Glasser doesn’t consider his flavors exotic. “Many are unexpected.” As, for instance, in 2007, when their marquee Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters came out: “everybody thought that using chocolate for a bitter was exotic.”
Bittermens is one among a few, but they seem to have set the standard worldwide for the next phase of craft bitters (in 2009, a brief partnership with European-based bitters company, The Bitter Truth, took the Bittermens line global). And because they’re all classified as non-potable alcoholic beverages (key to avoiding awkward and arbitrary state-to-state liquor laws), Bittermens bitters ship nationwide. But the storefront concept works, too. Bartenders come into the Bittermens General Store on East Sixth Street “all the time,” says Glasser, “from around the world.” And it’s not just success in reputation, but revenue. “We have exceeded our goals,” Glasser reports, “both in sales of products versus bar revenue and overall revenue in general.”A surprise, maybe, considering house-made is de rigeur among barmen of reputation, and that so many cocktails are built upon classic bitters like Angostura. But Glasser reads between the bitters lines, finding a place for bitters that are at once classically bitter and progressively experimental. And that’s the secret of his success. However exotic the flavor profiles get (Bittermens always accepts requests for customizations), they’ve all been built to suit a cocktail or spirit in its full complexity. “If it’s just a one-trick wonder that works great in a handful of cocktails,” says Glasser, “but really isn’t useful in a more grand sense.” And grand is what Bittermens is after. One (very) small batch at a time.