Birectifier Analysis of Radiant Bitters

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[Hand blown bitters bottle and machined dasher top.]

Recently, I was asked to take a look at some cocktail bitters from Dr. Kevin Peterson of Detroit’s Castalia cocktail bar which lives within the Sfumato perfumery. Kevin had just published a very unique cocktail book, Cocktail Theory: A Sensory Approach to Transcendent Drinks, that draws upon experience as a bar owner as well as perfumer.

This also relates to conversations taking place over at the Spirits & Cocktail Community forum. Things begin with Martin Doudoroff falling in love with the new Bogarts bitters from Stephan Berg and wondering about their exceptional “flavor binding” abilities. Evan D makes the connection between flavor binding and radiance or fixatives and here we are.

I have mainly focused on exploring radiant congeners in spirits like the rose ketones—damascenone, ionone, and damascone while in Kevin’s cocktail book, he explains that many botanicals have lesser radiant abilities. This may explain the importance of certain compounds in gin formulations, vermouth, and now cocktail bitters. Think orris & angelica, but there are likely more.

The first thing to know about radiants is that they contribute remarkable pleasurable persistence which is generically correlated to luxury in a flavor experience. That is the first way to identify them. Secondly, they create perceptual bridges to other aromas and valourize features they are paired with. The rum crowd obsesses over esters, but they are often limp if radiant compounds are not also present (damascenone). Third, is that perfumers hypothesize your immune system bends around radiants in a state of relaxation. To add to that, I personally hypothesize their immune system interaction changes our response to ethanol yielding a mellower inebriation. How do you measure all that?

From Kevin’s words on the Spirits & Cocktail Community forum:

I’ve been making a house bitters I actually call “Radiant Bitters” for my bar in Detroit, Castalia, for a few years. I’m working on sending a bottle to @Bostonapothecary for birectifier analysis, and I’ll paste the recipe here. Everything is equal parts by mass, macerated in 151-proof rum (Cane Run) for 2 months, then diluted to 75 proof and chill filtered.

Bittering Maceration
Burdock root, gentian root, cinchona bark, wormwood

Flavor Maceration
Coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, fresh orange peel

Radiant Maceration
Orris root, angelica root, schisandra berry, bay leaf

When I received the bitters, the first test I performed was the evaporation test. I put 1.0 ml in a tasting glass with a watch−glass lid and let it evaporate slowly over days looking to experience its layers and how long its character persisted.

Then I queued up the exhaustive test in a trial versus Angostura bitters to examine its comparative persistence. It was stretching neck & neck with Angostura beyond 1:500, which is well beyond most spirits, and considered remarkably persistent; a hallmark of radiance! One other thing this test revealed is the importance of color to the identity of Angostura bitters. Its color stretches supernaturally while the radiant bitters, which start with a brown hue, dilute to clear very quickly.

Then I reread my birectifier case study of Angostura bitters. This case study sets up a nice comparison between the two bitters and it is mostly revealed that they differ most markedly in the first fraction. Angostura harnesses an intense grapefruity zestiness. This feature likely gives its a duality of impact between top notes and radiant base notes. Radiant bitters have a detectable zestiness, but Angostura was possibly 10x.

I didn’t have the luxury of a direct side by side fraction tasting, but I’d say the other fractions are comparable in nuance, intensity, persistence, and intrigue. The radiant bitters formula appears to be pragmatic with equal measures and it is easy to recognize that could be optimized with more systematic work. If we judge them on the theory they try to harness, they can be given a stellar review and every lesson they teach is worthy of much more exploration—from bitters to gin, vermouth & amaros, the whole gamut of aromatized products.

Another way the two bitters differ is that the radiant bitters are sharply bitter whereas angostura is not. I personally feel that cocktail bitters do not have to be bitter. I also hypothesize that Angostura bitters harness their tannic effect as a flavour enhancer. This allows them to pep up younger whiskies by directly subsidizing barrel character and filling out that facet of the sensory matrix. Distinct bitterness, as we all know, can most certainly be pleasurable, but operates on a different principle. Angostura can be added to a dry Martini and the result is commonly harmonious where as bitters with sharp bitterness, in the absence of sweetness, may be somewhat jarring and dissonant.

Angostura is very culinary when we classify it’s picked apart sensations whereas the radiant bitters had some non-culinary moments where I felt I was in the realm of perfume. This likely adds unique points of intrigue. I also felt generic trigeminal sensations where it was activating parts of my brain beyond gustation & olfaction. It is not easy to outline those sensations but that is likely their strength; more intrigue and raw points of pleasure. Light up your brain!

I tried the radiant bitters versus Angostura in a Manhattan face off:

1 oz. 2 year 99 proof rye
0.5 oz. sweet vermouth
1.5 ml bitters (a standardized dash)

They were clearly different, but each bitters was clearly salient, a driving force in the drink. The highlight of the comparative experience, as reinforced prior in the matching stretchability (remember 1:500), was equal intensity. However, my one criticism came up. Radiant bitters are sharply bitter and that feature was salient. Bitterness is a valid cocktail feature, but it seems less congruent in a Manhattan than Angostura’s approach.

Angostura bitters echoed and alliterated features inherent to the rye. It increased intensity like a very clear supernormal stimuli. Radiant bitters may have had a similar relationship, but to that of the vermouth. Nuance and intrigue were added to. Both bitters had a similar relationship to persistence; a dramatic increase!

Radiant bitters are a welcome addition to the cocktail scene, and besides being plain enjoyable, they teach so many lessons. Hopefully, they point people in the direction of future inquiry. One of their biggest successes is matching persistence with an iconic product as revealed by the simple exhaustive test. If you are formulating cocktail bitters, and you want to be accepted by the market, you may want to achieve 1:500.

Fraction 1: Crystal clarity; no louche, and a light zestiness. Far lighter in character than I expected. A possible sensation that is apart from the dilute alcohol.

Fraction 2: Crystal clarity; no louche. Slight generic character but less than fraction 1.

Fraction 3: I expected this to be neutral but there is more character than the first two fractions. Still light overall and there is nothing too distinct going on. The baseline character almost seems perfume-esque and non-culinary.

Fraction 4: Faintly louched. There is a penetrating perfume like character. Its not easy to categorize the aroma as bitter. There is possibly a trigeminal sensation, like the cooling of menthe, but not specifically that.

Fraction 5: Very louched with oil droplets on the surface. When this was first distilling, the louche was below the surface like insoluble essential oil heavier than water. This changed to something a little more homogenous looking. I anticipated this to be very concentrated, but its kind of lovely. The character is different than fraction 4. With four your feel penetrating aromas, with five its more luxurious persistence, warmth, and roundness. Oily on the palate, but not especially acrid. There is another generic trigeminal sensation.

Fraction 6: Relatively light with the character dropping off dramatically. Remnants of character I’d attribute to cinnamon or nutmeg. Yet more trigeminal sensation. The palate seems oddly aqueous & oily. Aqueousness is probably a sensation of anticipating ethanol to bind things but it not being there.


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