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Like most bartenders, I love bitters! Why? Simple: they add another dimension to the drink, quite literally. Think back to the basic biology lesson on taste, which states that there are four taste receptors on the tongue: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. So when we use bitters we are involving more of the tongue’s taste receptors in the imbibing experience. Learn how to help your customers acquire this special taste.

However, as we all know bitters are generally considered an acquired taste, and the reason for this is well documented.  A simple search on Google will elicit a plethora of articles on the evolutionary Darwinism of our aversion to bitter flavours, but suffice to say those ancestors who did eat the bitter berries quickly eliminated themselves from our gene pool. In today’s society of overly sweetened, overly salted, mass-produced food and drink, the consumer is not used to the astringent, mouth- puckering effect of bitters (or sour for that matter, but that’s a whole other blog!). So it is our job as knowledgeable bartenders to open people’s minds and tastebuds to this brave new world. So I devised a short set of questions to help illicit this information from them:

  1. What foods do you like?
  2. What wines do you like?
  3. What spirits do you like to drink?
  4. What fruits do you like?
  5. Do you like sweet drinks or sour drinks?
  6. Do you have a favourite cocktail?
  7. Is there anything you’re allergic to or just don’t like?

From these simple questions I was able to deduce a rough starting point in terms of my customers’ flavour history. For example if a customer answered with the following: -

  1. Simple food, nothing too complicated, not that foreign muck
  2. I like beer
  3. Bourbon and coke
  4. Don’t really like fruit
  5. I like stuff like coke, so sweet
  6. Cocktails are for girls
  7. You

I knew I was dealing with a very unadventurous drinker who I had just managed to piss off! Not the greatest place in the world to start. However, if I got the following responses:

  1. I like most food, will try anything once
  2. Big red wines, but it depends on what I’m eating
  3. Whiskey, gin, tequila; depends on my mood
  4. Pretty much everything, but love peaches
  5. I prefer my drinks slightly sour
  6. Margarita on the rocks with salt
  7. Don’t like snails

Obviously I was dealing with a more adventurous gourmand than in the case above, but if we look into these answers a little more, some interesting things become clear. This consumer is already experienced with bitters and indeed enjoys them; most big red wines are high in tannins, which have a bitter, astringent flavour. So this person will be much more receptive (his/her tolerance will be higher) to bitter flavours than the first unadventurous drinker. Obviously these are the extreme cases and most consumers lie somewhere between the two. Some other indicators to look out for are:

  • Likes dark chocolates
  • Likes tea
  • Like pomegranates and/or persimmons
  • Enjoys smoked food
  • All of these contain varying amounts of tannin and hence a slightly bitter, astringent characteristics. Some other key indicators to consider are:
  • Age (younger drinkers likely have had less experience with complex flavours and so should be handled gently)
  • Ethnic Background (Europeans, especially the Italians and the French, have a long-standing cultural relationship to bitters)
  • Sex (Females tend to have a keener sense of taste and smell then men and as such may be more sensitive to bitterness)

Once we know where on the path to bitters our consumer lies, we can start the slow process of converting them. Again, it is best to proceed with caution. The bartender’s adage that it’s easier to add more than to take it away should be kept in mind.  Ensure that you always underestimate your consumer’s tolerance level for bitterness, but encourage him/her to explore their tolerance levels themselves (the more interaction a consumer has with a product the less of a mystery and the more everyday it becomes). Leave the bottle of bitters with them, allowing them to slowly add more in until they are happy with the level of bitterness (obviously you must make sure that the drink has enough body and complexity to stand up to more bitter flavour than you initially add). This also makes it more unlikely that you get a drink handed back to you by the customer for being too bitter, as they added the extra bitterness. Once the customer has found his tolerance level in terms of the taste, encourage them to experiment with the variety of flavours that are available. Old- fashioned styles of bitters or fruit styles all have the same bitter taste (in varying amounts), it is their aromatic components that vary, as well as the varying sweetness.

You have now initiated your consumers into the world of bitters. You may have imparted legend and knowledge as well, but most importantly you will have opened their eyes to a new area of taste exploration.

Do not forward these materials to anyone below the legal purchasing age. Belvedere Vodka is a quality choice. Drinking responsibly is too.