Enhance your next meal by adding bitters

Wigle has an extensive collection of bitters, perfect for the holidays. (credit: Sarah Gutekunst/Operations Manager) Wigle has an extensive collection of bitters, perfect for the holidays. (credit: Sarah Gutekunst/Operations Manager)

I walked through the door to Wigle Whiskey for their holiday bitters demo with a couple misconceptions. First, I thought I was about to get free drinks, yet I had to pay a reasonable six dollars for the most delicious whiskey cocktail I’ve ever imagined (The Burgundy: white wheat whiskey, apple cider, cranberry tea, and mulberry spice syrup, with a dusting of cinnamon on the surface). And second, I thought bitters were only for drinks. Demo leader and head of bitters distribution for Wigle Allison Burns proved me oh so wrong.

Allison stood behind her table, full of crackers, cheese, yogurt, soup, and bitters. She shouted “Remove bitters from your bar cart!” to anyone that asked. “It’s an extension of your spice rack!” My small mind couldn’t handle this rupture in reality. Prior to this life-changing experience, the only ideas I had about bitters were of that Angostura bottle with the confusing paper that doesn’t actually fit, and classic cocktails like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. But then I realized what a bitters is, and it’s really nothing more than an extract: botanicals soaked in alcohol for a long time that becomes a super concentrated flavor bomb. You just have to know how to use it.

The recommendations that Allison had laid out for us on the table were a really exciting sneak peek into the potential of bitters as an ingredient. The first taste I got of it all was just an amped up cheese and crackers, which she recommended as a snack to leave out for guests at a party. It was simply crackers and slices of brie, but then she had mixed up honey with bitters to drizzle on top. Even better, there were two options: honey with pomander orange bitters, and honey with rosemary lavender bitters. Both were great, but I personally loved the pomander orange. Brie and fruit are just so perfect together.

Next to that was maple-flavored Greek yogurt with mole bitters, which is inspired by a Mexican sauce which is both spicy and chocolaty — the stuff of dreams. The flavor combination was intensely good. The smoky sweet maple flavor really hits it off with the spicy dark bitter flavor. I could imagine this as just breakfast, or even a dip for some crunchy gingersnaps. Allison also shared that for Thanksgiving she used the mole bitters on top of her pumpkin pie, and every morning she throws a little splash in her coffee. Both had me very tempted to buy a bottle.

But the true treasure of the evening was the squash soup featuring the classic aromatic bitters. For the penny-pinchers, unmotivated folks, or unskilled chefs, you can do this with any store-bought boxed soup and a couple tablespoons of bitters. But if you’re the from-scratch type, here’s some good news. Allison was giving out recipes.

Squash and Bitters Soup
1 3-pound squash, kabocha, butternut, or pumpkin
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 large leeks, while and pale green parts only, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 quart of chicken stock
2 cups of water
2 tablespoons of aromatic bitters, Wigle variety recommended
2 tablespoons of light brown sugar
1 teaspoons of sea salt
3/4 teaspoon of black pepper
1/3 cup of heavy cream

Start out by peeling the squash, removing all the seeds, and chopping it into 2-inch cubes.

Then in a big heavy pot, melt the butter over medium heat. This will become the tasty bubble bath for the leeks and garlic. Let them simmer and stir occasionally until the leeks are translucent, which should take about six minutes. Next up is everything but the cream. Cook it all uncovered until the squash is tender. Somewhere around 25 minutes later, pour the pre-soup chunky medley into a blender in batches.

This serves eight, so when you make this for your next fancy friend dinner party or to impress your family over break, give your guests options. I recommend putting the heavy cream in a gravy-boat-type pouring container, alongside some extra salt, pepper, and bitters. Let everyone have their soup perfectly to their taste. I would also add some spice to the soup, like nutmeg or cinnamon, but sparingly of course so you don’t overwhelm the squash.

Allison said that the beauty of bitters is that it brings out the sweetness around it, and this rang the truest to me in this soup. It’s so creamy, sweet, and seasonal. Then that little hit of bitter on the back of your tongue reminds to appreciate the slight sweetness.

But since I would also like to throw in a nod to tradition, and no meal is complete without a cocktail, I must include Wigle’s recipe for an Old Fashioned.

Old Fashioned
2 ounces of wheat whiskey
1 sugar cube
2 dashes of pomander orange bitter (which was my hands-down favorite)
1 piece of orange peel

Muddle the sugar cube with the bitters to dissolve it. Then add the whiskey and stir it up. Because you’re fancy, finish it off with a little twist of orange peel. Bottoms up, friends.