Taste for bitter, sour cocktails reviving bygone drinks

NEW YORK - Cosmopolitan and other sweet cocktails may still rule, but a revival of drinks flavored with bitters and laced with vinegar is catching on beyond trendy bars and lounges.

Beverage experts say bartenders are looking for inspiration with less sugary concoctions that are decades, even centuries, older than the Manhattan and Old-Fashioned.

They have also been exploring the use of vegetables and unconventional ingredients such as browned butter to bring modern twists to drinks that had faded in popularity. "That's how the wind has been blowing," said Kevin Denton, the creative bar director at the restaurant Alder in New York.

"There has generally been a backlash against decades of overly sweet cocktails." Three centuries after reaching the United States, drinks known as shrubs, whose origin can be traced back to ancient Turkey and Persia, have enjoyed a renaissance.

The tart drinks, spiked with vinegarized fruit and vegetable juices, were prevalent during Prohibition in the 1920s in the United States because they were served without alcohol. They became passe with the advent of refrigeration that helps produce stay fresh, according to Michael Dietsch, author of the book"Shrubs."

Bitter drinks also have long histories. Scientists have traced to ancient China and Egypt the use of herbs and other bitter elements in alcohol for medicinal purpose as well as pleasure.

Campari and Fernet-Branca are today's staples of bitter alcohol, and Dietsch said the Negroni, a cocktail that contains campari, is making a resurgence.

Bartenders are also creating a new generation of bitters with other ingredients such as celery seeds and mole, a Mexican sauce.

"Bitters is one of the flavors that has been deeply explored. The second stage is the nuance of bitters as modifiers," said Alex Day, co-owner of the bar Death & Co in New York.

To a lesser extent, salty cocktails have re-emerged, as bartenders experiment with hardier vegetables when the supply of locally grown berries, citrus and other fruits dwindles in winter.

The Denver restaurant Oak at Fourteenth has served pumpkin puree-based soda and cocktail. "You are using what's in the kitchen in the bar, pushing the envelope on what's going on, what's out there," said Bryan Dayton, Oak's owner and beverage director.

While vegetable purees seem gimmicky to some connoisseurs, there is little doubt the comeback of bitter, sour and salty cocktails is not a fad. "I don't see it coming to a close anytime soon," Denton said.