The story behind Bittermens, the Somerville-based bitters makers, is a pretty common one in the world of small-batch producers. Avery and Janet Glasser wanted to use a product, saw an opening for it in the market, and said, "Screw it - we'll do it ourselves." In 2007, the couple were cocktail enthusiasts living in San Francisco when they were invited to a bitters-making class at a nearby distillery. Their first effort, a riff on the mole sauce common in Mexican cooking, was almost instantly well-received; when bars started sniffing around, they realized they had a potential business opportunity on their hands. The recipe they designed on that first try, a potent, spicy blend of cinnamon and chocolate, is essentially the same one you'll find in their popular Xocolatl Mole Bitters today.
Wait a second though - what are bitters again? First things first: there are two kinds of bitters, potable and non-potable. The former are digestifs (like the ubiquitous bartender's friend Fernet-Branca) that are meant to be consumed on their own. Non-potable bitters, like Bittermens and bigger brands like Angostura and Peychaud's, are essentially liquid spices that add flavor and complexity to cocktails; they're made by steeping herbs, barks, and citrus in high-proof neutral spirits. Since they generally have a high alcohol content and a very powerful flavor, you wouldn't want to drink them alone (unless you were living 100 years ago, back when they thought getting drunk on stuff like this counted as taking medicine). Many classic cocktails - like the Manhattan, the Sazerac, and the Martinez - call for varying types of bitters.
"Most people who drink cocktails vaguely know what bitters are, since they are called for in many recipes. However, for the average drinker, they probably have a bottle of Angostura and that's it," says Janet Glasser. A product like Bittermens is designed for people who want to take at-home mixing to the next level.
While the Xocolatl Mole is still the most popular recipe, Bittermens has branched out into other flavors as well. The Grapefruit Bitters are made with grapefruit peel and hops, while the 'Elemakule Tiki Cocktail Bitters are a bright, spicy cinnamon blend meant to be used in tiki-style cocktails. And the most recent addition, Boston Bittahs, is a citrus-heavy recipe best served in crisp, refreshing seasonal cocktails. The Glassers recommend using the Xocolatl Mole in a cocktail like the Latin Quarter, a riff on the Sazerac made with rum instead of rye. (For more imbibing inspiration, check out their website, Bittermens.com, which features a bevy of original recipes.)
Unsurprisingly, Bittermens has caught on among the mixologist crowd in Boston. "When we gave the bitters to bartenders, the reaction was very positive, and we now have bars throughout the country where they are used," says Janet Glasser. Locally, you'll find them being used at bars like Eastern Standard, No. 9 Park, Hungry Mother, and Drink, to name a few. The Boston Shaker (69 Holland Avenue, Somerville, 617.718.2999) carries all the bitters, as does Liquor World (13 White Street, Cambridge, 617.547.3110).
Scott Holliday of Rendezvous (502 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.576.1900) prefers the Xocolatl Mole bitters himself. "I find they're a nice departure and addition from other aromatic bitters in Old Fashioneds and even Manhattans. They are nicely complex with layers of flavors, qualities that are lacking in so many of the new ‘one-note' bitters." He's using them most often these days in his version of New York bar Milk & Honey's drink Penicillin ($9), which also features Scotch, honey-ginger syrup, and Angostura bitters, with a spoonful of smoky Scotch floating on top and a squeeze of orange juice.
At Green Street (280 Green Street, Cambridge, 617.876.1655), they've got a cocktail called Avery's Arrack-ari ($8.50), made with Batavia Arrack (an Indonesian "rum" distilled from sugarcane), lime juice, simple syrup, and a Talisker rinse. It's named after Avery Glasser, who'd sit at the bar with owner Dylan Black and talk recipes. It's not regularly made with Bittermens tiki bitters, but adding a few dashes made the citrus really pop. Green Street's Déjà Vu in Delhi ($8) adds the tiki bitters to Old Monk rum, St. Germain, and lime juice for a surprisingly dry citrus-and-molasses blend.
"Beyond the standard bitters, we wanted to bring in some that fit in well with the rum profile of our cocktails," Black says. "Beyond that, we're interested in supporting people we could see face to face." There's nothing bitter about that.