Not all that long ago, most Utah bars would have a lonely bottle of Angostura bitters behind the bar. Or, if you were lucky, maybe some Peychaud's. But with the craft cocktail renaissance that has emerged in America during the past few years, an industry of high-quality artisan bitters has grown along with it—even here in Utah.
What are bitters? Cocktail bitters—as opposed to "digestive bitters" such as Campari, Fernet Branca, Aperol, Jagermeister and Jeppson's—are used in small amounts (usually drops) to flavor cocktails. A little bit goes a long way, which is why artisan bitters are commonly sold in tiny eyedropper-size bottles. Although they contain alcohol, they're considered "alcoholic non-beverage products," which means that they can be purchased in supermarkets and other non-liquor retail shops.
Most bitters are made primarily with alcohol and water, and flavored with botanicals that range from orange peel and cassia to hibiscus, gentian and beyond. Although booze historians trace the earliest bitters back to the ancient Egyptians, its more recent history seems to begin with the Brits in the 19th century, who mixed medicinal herbal bitters into their Canary wine. The world's most well-known bitters—Angostura—were created in 1824 in Angostura, Venezuela, by German physician Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert. Around the same time (ca. 1830), Peychaud's bitters was founded in New Orleans by Creole apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud. Peychaud's is now produced in Kentucky, while Angostura comes from Trinidad and Tobago.
Closer to home, Mike D'Amico founded Roy-based Beehive Bitters Co. (beehivebitters.com) in 2015 when he and his family and friends noted a lack of quality bitters in the Utah market. It's a truly artisan outfit, run and operated by D'Amico himself, with hand labeling on each bottle containing batch and bottle numbers. Retailing for $13.50 per 1-ounce bottle, Beehive's lineup includes coffee & cacao, spiced orange, lime and lemon bitters. D'Amicio also sells bitters gift sets, three- and five-packs, and seasonal bourbon barrel-aged caramelized orange bitters ($27.95 for 5 ounces). The latter is an excellent addition to a Manhattan, with notes of orange peel, vanilla from Sugar House Distillery whiskey barrels and appealing spice aromas.
Salt Lake City's Bitters Lab (bitterslab.com) was also launched in 2015 by Andrea Latimer and Jesse Coss. Before founding Bitters Lab, Latimer created Bittersweet to help introduce Utahns to culinary bitters used in dessert and for making "mocktails." The Farmers Market-based experiment would soon lead to Bitters Lab, where the married couple currently produces six varieties: aromatic; charred cedar and currant; apricot vanilla; habanero lime; seasonal apple ginger; and fig and black walnut—the last two are available in autumn and winter, respectively. They come in attractive 4-ounce bottles with a modern BL logo, priced at $20 apiece. Fans of barrel-aged whiskey will take kindly to the charred cedar and currant bitters with woodsy, smoky notes balanced by subtle sweetness from black currants. The habanero lime flavor is a natural for margaritas and other tequila and mezcal drinks.
It's too lengthy to get into here, but for a fun read, visit honestjohnbitters.com, the Honest John Bitters Co. website, for the entertaining story by writer Darby Doyle recounting the history of fictional Honest John. The real founders of Utah's newest craft bitters company are Sara Lund and Brandon Cagle of SLC's Bodega and The Rest. Priced at $24 per 4-ounce bottle, or $10 for a half-ounce, Honest John flavors currently include aromatic, NOLA, orange, black walnut and grapefruit. The aromatic bitters is a high-quality substitute for Peychaud's or Angostura in an old fashioned, and the black walnut combines dark flavors of cacao and black walnuts with sweet maple and allspice notes. Find Honest John at The Rest, Caputo's and online.