A couple of dashes of bitters swimming in a glass full of booze. How much of a difference can it make if you choose aromatic vs. creole, chocolate vs. orange, cucumber vs. rhubarb? Well, to help get to the bottom of the mystery of how much of a role bitters play in a cocktail, The Bitter Truth recently sent out a kit it dubbed “The Manhattan Challenge.” The idea is simple: Make a number of identical Manhattan cocktails and vary only the type of bitters used in the recipe. Armed with a small bottle each of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and 10 types of bitters made by the company, I got to work, carefully measuring out as many (admittedly ghetto) Manhattans that I could make with the raw materials at hand. I had enough booze for 6, and I chose 6 of the most promising bitters to use with the drink. They weren’t pretty cocktails, but they were almost exactly the same, right down to the ice. My wife and I then tasted through the sextet blind.
First off, the differences were definitely immediate and, in some cases, striking. I was immediately turned off by the Manhattan made with peach bitters, which had a surprising vegetal tone. I didn’t overly care for this cocktail with orange bitters, either, which came across as doughy.
The big winner for both of us was the drink made with Bitter Truth’s Jerry Thomas Bitters, an homage to the 19th century barkeep and a versatile product all around. These bitters gave the drink a rich spiciness with lots of clove elements, really rounding out the cocktail. I gave second marks to the Old Time Aromatic Bitters (Bitter Truth’s spin on Angostura), which felt traditional but still pumped the drink up with lots of cinnamon, chocolate, and vanilla notes. Bitter Truth Creole Bitters (similar to Peychaud’s) were a distant third, not really doing much for the drink; I liked this Manhattan about as much as one made with chocolate bitters.
So: This was a really fun experiment, and while your mileage may vary, I can say that more spice-driven bitters really tended to shine more brightly than fruity ones, at least in this specific cocktail. Don’t be afraid to try it for yourself. Bitter Truth’s “Traveler’s Set” includes five different mini-bottles you can experiment with. You’re on your own for the rest of the ingredients.