Duggan McDonnell on Bitters

Duggan McDonnell opened and launched the acclaimed spirits program at frisson and is currently working as a freelance cocktail consultant while developing 'Cantina,' a culinary cocktail lounge with much Latin funk. (More on this soon, stay tuned.)


Have you noticed the rash (cultural phenom, not skin yuck) of various bitters being used in cocktails of late? Surely you've seen the little bottles your barkeep dashes in cocktails for that extra bit o' sass on the palate. But have you noticed the really great bars and restaurants about town featuring a variety of inspired cocktails with bitter spirits? Like Absinthe with its 'Fruit Cup' made from Punt e Mes, Rye with its 'Honey Delight' which features Fee Brothers orange bitters, and frisson going strong with the 'Pomegranate Manhattan' featuring Cynar.

It's a delight that in the State of California where fruit-forward drinking reigns supreme, the category of 'Bitters' retains its status as terrific underdog.

Cocktail bitters such as Angostura, Peychaud, and Orange all stem from the bar biz here in the States. Sure, Antoine Peychaud was a Southern gentleman, a pharmacist, and the Angostura folks, with their secret formula and secret location, began as a means to cure scurvy or indigestion or whatever the disease du jour was. (Forgive my being a little loose with details, we don't have time for a history lesson, and I ain't an academic.) My point is that bitters would not have become a global staple had they not been embraced by American bartenders. Even today, great bartenders (mixologists?) create specialty bitters of their own by steeping citrus peel, herbs and seasonings in high-octane alcohol to use in signature cocktails of a delicious sort.

The real truth – the actual history – is that we who appreciate the delicate balance of bitter upon our palates owe it all to Italy. For centuries, the Italians have been distilling bitter spirits. Here is a petite list: Aperol, Averna, Campari, Cynar, (the ubiquitous) Fernet Branca, Punt e Mes... and on the list could go. All of these brands started out with families distilling and selling their unique formula of booze to the public. And, thankfully, many of them retain their centuries-old integrity by using the very same recipe since its inception.

Fatigued from the phenomenon of Fernet in our fair foggy City, I've turned my attention to Averna, a Sicilian amaro. Akin to Fernet in color and herbal balance, Averna lands more delicately on the tongue, bears a sweeter finish and as a digestivo has one's tummy feeling better right away. As it is somewhat versatile, I've been able to mix Averna with particular success in the 'Sicilia' cocktail. For your amusement and at-home mixing enjoyment, I suggest this recipe:

2 oz. Averna Amaro Siciliano
.5 oz. Ginger Syrup*
Half a lemon, hand-squeezed
8 mint leaves
Ginger Ale

In a glass mixing pint, muddle the mint leaves and ginger syrup together. Add Averna, lemon, and ice. Cap with Boston shaker, and shake vigorously. Strain over ice into a highball glass, adding a splash of ginger ale as you pour. Delish!

Bitter has its place in beverages as much as it does in cuisine. For years now, adventurous California chefs have been using shiso, frisee, daikon, and cardamom in their creations. I'm glad to see that "bar chefs" are following suit, creating cocktails with as much culinary intent as any entrée, while challenging our palates to a full, robust experience.

* Ginger Syrup recipe:
4 cups sugar
4 cups water
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 medium-size ginger root

Peel and dice ginger root. Set aside. Mix sugar and water in small saucepan. Allow to simmer and fully fuse. Add ginger and lemon juice, and steep on low heat for one hour. Remove from heat, cool, strain and bottle.