Bitters 101 with Bill and Lill Buitenhuys of AZ Bitters Lab
If you haven't been building your bitters collection, it's time to start. Bill and Lill Buitenhuys, the couple behind AZ Bitters Lab, explain that chefs have spice racks and bartenders equip themselves with an arsenal of bitters, which act as the seasoning element to finish and round out any cocktail flavor. If you're looking to up the ante for your cocktail recipe relatively inexpensively, bitters are the way to go. From there, it's just a matter of what kind you choose, and they told us everything you need to know about where bitters came from and what kinds are available.
Heather Hoch This is about half of Bill and Lill Buitenhuys' bitters collection.
You probably won't meet two nicer people in the cocktail world than Bill and Lill, and that's saying a lot because most of Phoenix's bar scene is full of passionate, hard-working, and knowledgeable folks who are happy to teach. Whether that's because the occasional night cap helps keep them all relaxed, we're not sure, but the couples' Instagram feed sure doesn't prove us wrong.
Call it research (because it is), Bill and Lill are constantly mixing cocktails at home in the South Valley to ensure the quality and consistency of their bitters creations. With three varieties out on the market right now, including sweet, spiced Figgy Pudding bitters, bright and citusy Orange Sunshine bitters, and chocolatey Mas Mole bitters, the pair are adding some unique flavor to the bitters scene in Phoenix.
Bill explains that there are two types of bitters: potable and non-potable. Potable bitters include aperitifs and digestifs like Campari, Fernet Branca, and even Jaegermeister. However, the couple currently specializes the non-potable kind (a.k.a. the kind you don't really want to drink straight), which can be broken down further into aromatic, flavored, and orange varieties.
Classics like Peychaud's and Angostura are considered aromatic and were part of the first wave of bitters production back in the 1800s, though bitters have been around in one form or another since ancient Egypt. In the 1800s, hundreds of different bitters producers were out on the market, combining herbs and alcohol to make medicinal tinctures. Since the bitters tasted, well, bitter, people began mixing bitters with their favorite spirit, some sugar, and water -- thus making the first cocktails.
Although there were hundreds of bitters varieties for every ailment, once Prohibition hit, just four bitters brands were left standing: Peychaud's, Angostura, Abbott's, and Fee Brothers. While attempts to replicate pre-Prohibition bitters recipes have been made, even the bitters that survived Prohibition aren't exactly what they were before.
Heather Hoch Just some of the many herbs you can use to make bitters.
However, it isn't all about the aromatic bitters. Orange bitters, like AZ Bitters Lab's Orange Sunshine, utilize bitter Seville orange rind, along with typical Indian trade route spices like cardamom, to create one of the first "signature flavors" found in bitters, as Bill puts it. The flavor was meant to mimic the use of fresh orange in cocktails when citrus was hard to come by.
The third variety, flavored, is more of a catch all-term for products like Fee Brothers celery, cherry, Aztec chocolate, and black walnut bitters. This is where Bill says the bitters steps out of just being the salt and pepper back bone of a cocktail and begins to add more specific flavor components.