For decades, the name Angostura has been synonymous with bitters for Australian drinkers. Peer behind any bar and you’ll inevitably find the distinctive bottle with a yellow cap and oversized paper label, but in the last few years there’s been a push to place a few alternatives alongside it.
The first part of that has been understanding that bitters can be broken down into two categories: aromatic or cocktail bitters, and digestive bitters. Both are alcoholic and contain a mixture of botanicals like fruits, flowers, spices, roots and barks, many with purported medicinal qualities.
These provide the bitter characteristics, and the main difference between aromatic and digestive bitters is how concentrated they are — both in flavour and alcohol content — and how much sugar is added.
Digestive bitters are generally much lower in alcohol and milder in flavour, meaning that they can be enjoyed on their own or with soda water, while the more concentrated aromatic bitters are usually measured out in drops. It’s an easy way to add complex flavours to a drink and the very first cocktails consisted simply of spirit, sugar, water and a few drops of bitters — what we call an old-fashioned today.
The Howling Owl’s Lindon Lark with Geordan Ellis (photo: Kelly Carpenter)
At the Howling Owl, Lindon Lark loves the versatility of aromatic bitters when he’s working behind the bar. “Everyone knows the lemon lime and bitters that you get at the pub. It’s a nice soft drink, but you can also put bitters in a whole range of cocktails with a wide variety of mixers and spirits and get something a little bit special.”
Last year Lark launched his own tonic syrup with the help of Uni SA’s Venture Catalyst program, and it turns out that was merely the first step in an ambitious plan. His vision is to create a range of mixers and other cocktail essentials like dry ginger syrup and, eventually, aromatic bitters.
Lindon Lark’s Snake Oil tonic syrup (photo: Kelly Carpenter)
It could be a while before we see them, though — “if it’s anything like tonic syrup, it’s a lot easier in theory than in practice,” he laughs. “So while I would love to do it, it’s going to require a lot of research and development”.
His tonic syrup took about nine months of trial and error before he was happy with his recipe, and he’s still tinkering with it as he prepares to move into new premises. While he originally made it onsite at Kangaroo Island Spirits (which was founded by his father Jon Lark), he’s moving production to a small kitchen in the East End of town, just off Rundle Street.
Though he can’t say too much about it at the moment, he does reveal that it will be “attached to one of the newer bars down the end and someone else will be making gin in the same facility.”
Adelaide Hills Distillery’s digestive bitters, The Italian
The proliferation of small bars that in the CBD has played a huge part in the bitters renaissance, and many of them stock a range of options beyond Angostura. International brands like The Bitter Truth sit alongside Melbourne-based Mister Bitters, which produces innovative lines like fig & cinnamon, pink grapefruit & agave and honeyed apricot & smoked hickory. But for local distiller David Danby, the volumes involved make it a difficult business to get into.
He suggests that Imperial Measures Distilling will probably venture into that market at some stage, but “as much as we like [aromatic] bitters, they’re not really a product that a lot of bars are going to use a huge volume of…. I just think that even in really creative bars they don’t actually get used that much — that one bottle with 100 mL can sit in the bar for an entire year.”
Red Okar from Applewood Distillery makes use of naturally bitter Australian Botanical lilly pilly
Digestive bitters, on the other hand, can be drunk alone and even when mixed are used in far greater quantities. Applewood’s Red Okar and Adelaide Hills Distillery’s The Italian have both been huge successes, and Imperial Measures’ recently launched Ruby Bitter sits in a similar category.
Like the other two, it’s similar in style to an Italian amaro and as the name suggests, it’s brilliant colour is reminiscent of Campari. Danby is coy about the ingredients, which include “citrus, some roots, herbs & spices, that sort of stuff,” as well as a little bit of colouring, but adds that the liquid’s vermillion hue comes mostly from the botanicals.
“That was something we played with for a fairly long time. A few of the components in there lend themselves to that kind of colour and it was just a matter of getting that balance right, but also getting the flavour profile to work as well, it’s a bit of a tricky balance.”
Ruby Bitter from Imperial Measures Distilling lives up to its name
As is typical of bartenders, Danby prefers the less sweet amaros and Ruby Bitter is slightly more bitter than it’s local counterparts. It’s the first in a planned range of three products, which will cover the entire flavour spectrum. A lighter Montenegro-style will work well in spritzes and a heavier, Averna-style with stronger herbal flavours and caramel characteristics will be better suited to a post-dinner digestivo.