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Anti-Bitters (aka Bitter Blockers)

by on August 2011

I've always like the idea of molecular mixology, but not necessarily the name or some of the end products. The name has been abandoned by most practitioners of the art, but the media refuses to move on. So be it, it's just a name and if it promote's better drinks / solids / foams / beads then that's fine. Hence forth the anti-bitters discussion will be classified as "taste science". So what the hell are "Anti-Bitters" anyway, and why would one want to be anti-bitter? Aren't bitter flavours all the rage and what the cool bartenders are doing?

Cool bartenders aside, bitter is a flavour that the majority of the population are not enamoured with. Before we can really discuss the role of bitters, and bitter blockers in cocktails, we need to take a brief trip into the past to explain why many people haven't developed an appreciation for bitterness.

Friday Night Evolutionary Biology Lesson

On the evolutionary side of the equation, history has shown that bitter flavours played a role in protecting us from poisons. Those early primates who lacked these important taste receptors, and ate the "red berries", are no-longer participating in the gene pool. Our natural instincts still tell us to make a "scrunchy face" when we taste bitter flavours.

Today, modern humans still believe that bitter equals bad. That is what that pulsating mass of grey matter tells them, so why would they fight it. The obvious answer is because you can learn to like bitter flavours and that opens up a whole new taste range. But, getting over "scrunchy face-itous" is extremely difficult for those who have suckled on the syrupy sweet sugar teat.

Fact: Bitter components all taste same. Yes, when we taste bitter, whether it is in beer, analgesics or an amaro, that bitter flavour is the same. The difference you sense is the coupling of aroma and the other tastes (sweet, salty, sour, metallic, unami, etc.)

A handful of bars are starting to incorporate bitterness into cocktails, while reducing the sugar content. But, the vast majority of bars still avoid bitter flavoured drinks, well, aside from shots of Jagermiester. Change presents a steep slope for managers and bartenders. Leaving the proverbial herd, and setting out on a new path which involves buying cases of Chartreuse, is difficult. Why risk it when Raspberry Sour Puss sells just as well.

This is where Anti-Bitters come into play. But before I explain that, we have to go back to the classroom and have a short lesson on what bitter blockers are.

Friday Night Science of Taste Session

Not surprisingly, bitter blockers do exactly what the name implies. They do this by interfering with the signalling protein called gustducin. To keep it simple, this is how it works; When a bitter component, from food or drink, hits your taste-buds, the receptor cell, on the bud, releases a squirt of gustducin, which then starts a cascade of reactions that result in an electrical signal pulsating down a nerve to your brain. The signal simply says "bitter". Depending on how bitter the food/drink is determines the intensity of the signal (i.e. more bitter equals more gustducin production resulting in stronger signals, and more intense scrunchy face).

Many of the compounds that block bitterness are naturally occurring in the human body. Some of them are found in breast milk, which nature designed to ensure that babies were not offended by bitter calcium components found in the milk. Without calcium babies would be little balls of gelatinous, money eating, sleep stealers. With bones they are at least cute.

Many of these compounds are FDA approved and fall under the category of "generally regarded as safe (GRAS)" which is the green light category. Also, companies have patented the bitter blocking properties of these components since they represent a very lucrative market.

The problem with some of these bitter blockers is that they are expensive, unstable at room temperature (need refrigeration) and are slightly soluble in water and insoluble in pure alcohol. There is still a lot of research to be done. But I have a sample that I keep in my fridge and it is proving to be very useful.

How Does This Relate to Cocktails?

Well, as we discussed before, many people have an aversion to bitterness. Trend setting bars,  and bartenders like working with bitters, as it is a great way to introduce new flavours to people. The problem comes when someone orders a drink and the bartenders gets excited and makes something with Chartreuse, Punt e Mes, Benedictine, over proof rum and a dash of aromatic bitters. Yes, an expensive, complex, bitter, drink, but not likely to impress the general public. Actually that mixture is unlikely to impress anyone.

Once an unsuspecting drinker gets a sip of that, the scrunchy face will come out and the drink will get sent back. The manager will look at the bartender, with contempt, for having to pour that drink down the sink. But, if you had a bottle of "Darcy and Son's Miracle Anti-Bitters No.47" behind the bar, you could simply add a couple of dashes, and straighten out the bitterness issue. Less spillage makes tight ass managers happy.

Basically, what I'm saying is that if professional bartenders, and spirit companies, want to grow the bitter category, it may be difficult to do with the general populace. But, having the ability to back-track a drink gives the bartender an opportunity to experiment with people and introduce them to bitter components, without generating a lot of spillage. It's an additional weapon in the bartenders arsenal.

Ultra Dry, Hold the Olive, Martini Test

Bitter blockers are compounds that works really well at blocking the bitterness of things like coffee, grapefruit juice and Unicum bitters. Once the bitterness is blocked it gives you a glimpse into the other flavour components that make up these magic elixirs. Grapefruit juice becomes sweeter and more citrusy, while Unicum becomes spicy and herbal. What else can it be used for?

If you attended the Sensory Perception session at Tales of the Cocktail you might recall we discussed normal, non and super tasters. One piece of information that I divulged was that super-tasters and some normal tasters perceive alcohol as bitter. I'm a normal taster who finds ethanol to have bitter characteristics. Can bitter blockers improve the flavour of vodka?

In this little experiment, I shook up some vodka with lots of ice and poured equal amounts into ISO wine tasting glasses. Yes, I gave the vodka the over the shoulder beating it deserves, but I usually stir for guests and others. I used Oval Vodka, because they sent me a free sample. I'm not preferential to any vodka and generally don't drink it myself, but if you like collecting bottles Oval has a unique one.

Anyway, in one glass I added two drops of bitter blocker solution and the other was straight up. I tasted the straight up one ("sample one") first, to avoid having any lingering bitter blocker effects interfere with the tasting. Sample One had that slightly bitter "alcohol" flavour that I often detect. That flavour is one of the reasons I avoid vodka martini's, vodka and soda, etc. It may not be the vodka, it just might be me.

After assessing "sample one" I rinsed with some filtered water, rested my palate for a minute and then tasted "sample two" (vodka plus bitter blocker). My impression was that it removed the bitterness that I detected in the un-doctored sample. It actually made the vodka taste sweet, smooth and highly drinkable.

The real test was the swish test. After about 15 minutes, the vodka warmed up a fair amount. Now, I'm not one to swish warm vodka around my mouth, but in the interest of science, I did. This little test really confirms that the bitter blocker makes a huge difference. "Sample One" gave me the spinal shivers, while Sample Two was smooth and sweet. It was extremely interesting. If you wanted to play the game of who's got the smoothest vodka, anti-bitter vodka would be the opposition crushing, third world, communist, despot. Nobody beats them.

This seems to correlate to the fact that non-tasters find ethanol sweet. Basically, the bitter blocker is impeding the release of gustducin on my tongue, but a non-taster would naturally have less gustducin production, due to the lower number of taste buds found on their tongue.

There is a lot of opportunity for products like this behind the bar. I see it as a way not to reduce bitterness, but improve the acceptance of bitterness. There are a few hurdles to overcome, like storage, patents and solubility, but I've made some significant strides in these areas. But someday we may have an option that will allow us to be more effective bartenders.