There’s one point to remember: bitter cocktails are one of the most important parts of modern mixology, but perpetually one of the least attention-grabbing aspects. Perhaps it’s the tiny bottles, and the corresponding fact that so many cocktails only contain a dash or two of each tincture, that makes the average drinker forget how important they really are. Either way, having an eclectic variety of bitters on hand is one of the best ways to take your cocktail game to the next level, as they allow you to easily modify classic archetypes and make them your own. appropriate.
Bitters, however, have always had more use than just mixing with alcoholic cocktails. They have long been eaten on their own in small amounts and believed to have various medicinal benefits. On the one hand, they’re great for calming an upset stomach or easing the bloated feeling after a big meal – my wife and I often mix up a small glass of hot water with several shakes of different types of bitters, and The result is both effective and pleasant to drink – a few ounces of hot water with Angostura and orange bitters actually taste like Chai tea. The thing is, bitters are more versatile than you might think.
So it stands to reason that a company making bitters would find as many commercial uses for them as possible, while also finding a way to expose the supposed health benefits of consuming bitters. Enter, Hella Cocktail Co., producers of a wide range of bitters and mixers, who have also developed a new line of “non-alcoholic sparkling aperitifs” which they have dubbed Bitters & Soda. Described as allowing “all the fizzy benefits of the Bitters & Soda spark with no sugar”, the line is marketed around being low in calories, sugar free and flexible in terms of consumption – I appreciate that they manage to woo the non-alcoholic market but also offer highball recipes with spirits on each of the cans. After all, why limit yourself to just one market? As for the purported “anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial powers,” well…I’m going to focus a bit more on flavor here.
Bitters & Soda currently comes in five flavors and is quite pricey, at $40 per 12-pack. between them with a flavored seltzer.
That said, let’s get to tasting the whole range.
Dry Aromatic is sort of the base for these Bitters & Soda recipes, essentially the equivalent of the company’s Angostura-style bitters in sparkling water. In fact, it’s quite reminiscent of the nose of the aforementioned “bitter hits” my wife and I make after meals, with expressive notes of orange peel and sweet baking spices.
On the palate, however, this one is indeed dry; he feels he would be much more balanced by gentleness than he actually is. I remember the Constant Comment tea, with the interplay of citrus and warm spice tones, the dryness in the mouth eventually turning into quite an intense bitterness. On my own, I finally found this overwhelming bitterness; it’s heavy on the cinnamon/clove notes, and the bitterness lingers in the mouth for a very long time, effectively drying it out. The overall presentation I think was improved somewhat by adding a touch of bourbon which helped soften the bitterness a bit and brought out more spice and oaky tannins, but at the end of the day , I always feel like these flavors would sing more with at least a slight addition of sweetness. I’m not averse to drinking bitter liquors, ‘ala amaro, but this flavor is for people who take the “bitter” part seriously.
You can really feel this one ticking the health buzzword boxes, can’t you? Everyone knows that if you want a product to move for health conscious people, you have to find a way to put turmeric in it. Either way, Hella says this one combines “all the herbal benefits of ginger and turmeric” with the “invigorating, bitter taste of Hella’s Zero-Sugar Bitters & Soda”, adding that “the bite of ginger is just enough to quench your thirst for something grown and sipable without the alcohol.”
I was actually somewhat surprised to find that compared to the Dry Aromatic, the ginger and turmeric flavor is quite mild, with a more delicate ginger on the nose than I expected, coupled with the light earth of turmeric. On the palate, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people tasting missed the turmeric altogether, as it’s quite subtle – nice and gingery, with just a bit of sweetness, this one is considerably easier to drink on its own than the Dry Aromatic. The bitterness is light to moderate, and the whole thing is nicely complemented by a touch of bourbon, adding hints of caramel and vanilla. Of all the Hella Bitters & Soda flavors, this isn’t necessarily the one I expected to like, but it does make a really nice (and yes, “adult”) highball.
They say, “With notes of bright citrus peel, allspice and bitter root, Lemon Lime Bitters & Soda is zero sugar and completely nostalgic. Let it transport you to fun days on the beach. Mix with fresh lemonade for a simple and delicious Zero-Proof cocktail.
This one, like the Ginger Turmeric, is quite surprising on the nose for the fact that it’s only slightly lemony – one would expect the citrus to be the defining element, but instead I get more bitters, with spice notes of allspice that combine with lime to strongly suggest the Caribbean liqueur falernum. On the palate, it also finds itself more defined by the spice and bitters than necessarily the citrus, but they nicely and refreshingly complement the heavy allspice profile. This one is especially nice with a touch of gin, resulting in something that tastes considerably more exotic than a two-ingredient highball. Probably my second favorite of the bunch, overall.
The Spritz Aromatic is very similar to the Bitters & Soda Dry Aromatic, with the implication of a little more sweetness, combined with the bitterness of gentian root and spices. Hella suggests mixing this one with practically anything, from gin or bourbon to simply pairing it with rosé wine.
Personally, however, I found the spice profile of the Spritz Aromatic to be a bit overbearing. On the nose, it’s quite pleasant, with lots of aromatic bitters, complemented by sweet citrus. On the palate, however, the spice notes of the bitters run amok, and it’s extremely strongly flavored with elements of cinnamon and allspice. I remember Christmas cookies, actually, but they’re like cookies where someone messed up the TSP and TBSP while measuring the spices. The bitterness, on the other hand, has been moved back a touch from the dry aromatic, but overall I just find the spice intensity to be too strong.
There had to be at least one flavor in the bouquet that suggested mixing with tequila, and grapefruit is the obvious candidate. Like the others, this one is “boldly unsweetened” and contains some of the same gentian root and spices. The nose is pretty light overall, but anyone who drinks grapefruit seltzer – I drink a ridiculous amount of it – would have no trouble confirming to the nose that grapefruit is the flavor. The spice notes, thankfully, are much more hidden here on the nose than they are on something like the Spritz Aromatic.
On the palate, this one has pleasant ripe grapefruit and sweet grassy notes, but it’s as dry as advertised, suggesting some grapefruit pith character. The bitterness is moderate and not too hard to tolerate on its own. The spicy character is a little less present than in the lemon-lime, and certainly much less assertive than the Spritz Aromatic. All in all, with a splash of tequila added, it’s a lovely bitter agave appetizer, which will be excellent in hot weather.
Jim Vorel is a staff writer at Paste and a resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.