Strike up a conversation with any good bartender or any good bitters maker about what makes a good cocktail, and in short order you will hear the word “balance.” Then you will hear more about it, and more. The signature characteristic of these tradeswomen and tradesmen is humility in the face of bringing authentic, quality, distinctive ingredients together in a harmonious way. The exact meaning of balance is anyone’s to define, but the architecture on which balance hinges seems to reside primarily in the mouth flavors rather than in the nose. Floral notes and spice notes in various proportions and intensities are not the challenge. Perfect balance is about bringing bitter, sweet, sour, salt, umami—the mouth flavors—into alignment. When mouth flavors are lopsided, bitters fill in where they’re needed. Like an expert sherpa, they forge a trustworthy route, so that your nose is freed to regale itself, to fearlessly explore the aromatic landscape of the drink. However, not all cocktails need bitters. Whether through tremulous equilibrium between acid and sweet (sidecar) or through swinging intercourse between salty, umami, and spicy (Bloody Mary), there are plenty of ways to achieve balance. And of course, many spirits and mixers are bitter in their own right.
Assembling a cocktail with this in mind is a more muscular way to tend bar. Yes, spirits are the foundation of a cocktail, but they exist to serve the cocktail, not the other way around. None of the ingredients alone is the purpose, in fact. It’s the creative spark of the bartender, the glow of liquid shaped in a glass, the instrumentation of temperature and dilution, the dance of aromatics— that’s the purpose. Let bitters be your beat.