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Mark Bitterman in front of just one of three bitters- and amaro-packed bookcases in his home.

Image: Jason Quigley

1) MARK BITTERMAN KNOWS MORE ABOUT BITTERS THAN ANYONE ON THE PLANET.

Surely, certainly, no human cares more, or writes more vividly, about bitters—the world’s most mysterious flavor extracts and soulful cocktail ingredient. We, mere bitters mortals, just shake a few drops of Angostura into a highball and call it good. Not Bitterman. Earlier this year, the Portlander taste-tested 500 varieties leached from every plant, seed, bark, herb, and flower, the eye-opening to the mouth-rolfing. He dropped tinctures on his tongue, swigged dashes in water or booze, gurgled amaro (the drinkable sister of bitters), concocted brews full of gentian root and lemon peels, and marched medicinal decoctions to a place they’ve rarely gone before: the kitchen.

The tasting notes, rating scales, and recipes that Bitterman forged in the aftermath are enlightening, hallucinogenic, and always entertaining. They’re also the backbone to Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari, due out October 27. It’s the first book to telegraph this growing force in America’s cocktail culture and argue a place for bitters at the food table. (Fernet flan, this is your moment.)

Bitterman, a boyish 48, is best known as a salt preacher. His first book, Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes, nabbed James Beard gold in 2011. The Northwest PDX location of his salt shop, the Meadow, houses the country’s largest chocolate bar collection. But bitters are also a longtime preoccupation. And Bitterman has the rigor, the imagination, and, yes, the name for the job of chronicling their recent boom.

In his field guide, we meet the likes of Coffee Rye, Crunk Drops, Burlesque, Ms. Piggy Peppercorn Bacon, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in which Bitterman detects notes of “pine, barley threshings, licorice stick, cereal, Ivory soap, and a bay seen in a rear view mirror.” He suggests we try it in a whiskey root beer float. Who could argue?

2) ALL DRINKS ARE BETTER WITH BITTERS.

That’s the gospel according to Mark. Without it, a cocktail has no balance. And not just a few drops of bitters, either. “That’s BS,” he says. “You want flavor. A generous dash (10 drops) delivers a serious bounce, lengthens liquor, cuts sweetness, and adds a bolt of bitter lightning.” Those qualities are on full display in Bitterman’s amaro- and vanilla bitters–laced martini spin (check out the recipe, below right.)

“Angostura is the ruler, the Yoda or the Darth Vader ... But as with any dominant force, talking solely about Angostura when you talk about bitters isn’t just limiting or wrong ... it’s missing the point.” —Mark Bitterman 

3) BITTERS INSPIRE POETRY.

Forget wine notes and their tedious clichés. Bitterman’s tasting notes are inspired reading. Behold:

Tonic (The Bitter Truth)
“Steve McQueen in a citrus racecar.”

Woodland (Portland Bitters Project) “Mountain pine trees, pine pollen, faint sage-chamomile forest floor; the air you breathe while dangling bare feet in a cold mountain stream.

Bangkok Betty Thai Spice (Bitter Queens)
“A sizzling food cart of Thai spices and Lipton onion soup mix, in a good way.”

Sambal (The Drunken Crane Bitters) “Redolent of a fish market after closing, then our boat was attacked by massive salty cold squid soup, onion, celery, and carrots.”

Orange Bitters (Cocktailpunk) “Standing at a roadside fruit stand in California, with Alice Waters peeling and eating strong, clean, cold oranges.”

Gangsta Lee’n (Bitters, Old Men) “Bootleg whiskey, smoldering cigarettes in an ashtray, Band-Aids.”

4) YOU, TOO, CAN BE A CRAZY BITTERS GENIUS.

Want to build your own collection? Start with the key flavor categories, from citrus to flat-out wacky. We asked Bitterman to get us started, with a must-have bottle from each. 

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Image: Michael Novak

[citrus] Dashfire’s Vintage Orange No. 1. 

”The best thing to happen to a martini since the invention of the ice cube, with notes of fresh bright orange, unused cedar cigar box, and a pheromone musk-ish quality. A great all-purpose bitter for orange complexity—bourbon drinks to custards.”  

[spicy] The Bitter End’s Jamaican Jerk 

”This will lift off the top of your head, then light a sagebrush fire in there. It’s ruthlessly spicy, a chile demon to dance in hot chocolate, hot buttered rum, Bloody Marys, or barbecue.”

[aromatic] Boker’s Bitters, by Dr. Adam Elmegirab 

”A pre-Prohibition formula, it’s more modest and effective than the ubiquitous Angostura. If you love old-fashioneds or manhattans, it’s a must have: a regal construction of orange and orange blossom, with an ancestral medicinal background of black lemon powder, cardamom, and clove.”

[lavender] E. Smith Mercantile’s Lavender Bitters

”Lavender bitters suffuse food and drink in a floral and herbal breeze. This one mixes gracefully in gin cocktails, salad dressings, and zesty sauces. A few drops in tapioca pudding will permanently rearrange your expectations of dessert.” 

[flat-out wacky] De-Ooievaar’s Groene Pommeranz

”I love [using] unexpected flavors. This one tastes like an old stone wall and all that grows on it and adds an impenetrable thicket of green herbs, sage, and lichen flavors to roasted squash, tabbouleh, and hamburger meat. I put it in a Pimm’s Cup and watch people freak out.” 

5) YOU CAN COOK WITH BITTERS.

The book makes an impressive case that bitters belong in the kitchen—lifting salad dressings, deepening meats, sharpening chocolate, and rethinking butters. Bitterman drives that last point home here with a boozy, bittered root beer “float” to glaze winter’s finest tuber. 

MAKE IT!

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Spiced Root Beer Butter

Rub 4 sweet potatoes with vegetable oil, sprinkle with coarse salt, and bake for around 45 minutes, or until tender, in a 450-degree oven. Meanwhile, combine ¼ cup golden rum and 1 cup root beer in a small saucepan. Boil over medium-high heat until the sauce has reduced to about ¼ cup. Remove from heat and season with ¼ tsp salt, 4 dashes orange bitters, 4 dashes baking spice bitters, and 4 dashes chile bitters. Stir in 3 tbsp unsalted butter. When potatoes are fully cooked, split them in half lengthwise and pour root beer butter all over the flesh. Serve hot.

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