When manager Angel Soto was working on the spring cocktail menu for Glen Ellyn's Reserve 22, he found a few of the drinks were missing something. So he made his own varieties of peach and chocolate bitters to add in.
"It brings the cocktail all together," he said. "We did experiment with a couple cocktails without the bitters, and it just didn't have the kick it needed."
Bitters and bitter liqueurs were common in classic cocktails, particularly before Prohibition, and have been surging back onto drink menus in the past two to three years. according to Chris Morgan, divisional director for Morton's Steakhouse.
"The customers' desire for that flavor profile is continuing to grow," Morgan said. "There's always a novelty factor with what was popular a long time ago. At the same time, our tastes as the consuming populous are changing from something that's sweet to something that's more balanced."
The restaurant, which has locations in Chicago and Schaumburg, offers a slate of cocktails with a bit of bitter bite including the Aviation, made with Tanqueray gin, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, The Bitter Truth violet liqueur and lemon juice, and the Boulevardier, which blends Woodford Reserve bourbon, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth and the bitter Italian liqueur Campari.
"Bitter lends balance to a drink," Morgan said. "If you're going to drink a cocktail that's all booze, it can tend to dull the palate. A cocktail that's too sweet can coat the palate. For food you want that balance of sweet, acidity, booze and bitterness. It leaves the palate fresh for that next bite of food you're going to have, or the next drink of your cocktail."
The restaurant is looking to expand its bitter offerings in May, rolling out a Manhattan made with rye whiskey and the bitter liqueur amaro. The idea is a sort of return to form for the cocktail.
"There's a lot of classic cocktails that had bitters as a component in them once upon a time that dropped out," Morgan said. "Now we're seeing the true recipes come back."
Lucca's Pizzeria & Ristorante in La Grange has been showing off a variety of bitter liqueurs in drinks such as the negroni, a classic Italian cocktail that blends Campari, Carpano sweet vermouth and Fords gin. For the spring menu, they added an Amaro Smash, which combines three versions of the spirit with grapefruit and lemon juice.
"I think it just has a really nice depth to it," said bar manager Brian Florczak. "I think amaros in general, you think they're going to be really bitter, but it's nice to really accent the sweetness you get. It gives you this complexity with something that's bright and refreshing."
Another new addition is the Running Away to Martinique, a blend of Rhum agricole, blanco tequila, peach, agave and coconut given bite by the bitter spirits Aperol and Malort. If that sounds like too much for your taste buds, Florczak recommends the Iced Coffee Correcto, a blend of orange-flavored amaro, espresso, aged rum and coffee liqueur.
"It's a good introduction to amaro," he said.
Making their own bitters went with Reserve 22's focus on farm-to-table ingredients. The peach bitters appear in the Gold&Smoke, which also features bourbon, honey, lemon juice and rosemary smoke, and you can try the chocolate version in a spin on a Manhattan blending Pendleton 1910 rye, chocolate bitters, vermouth and chocolate shavings, or the If You Must Ask, which features Elijah Craig bourbon, honey, dark rum, chocolate bitters and hazelnut brown ale beer.
"Everyone loves chocolate and we felt it would go great with people sitting on our patio," Soto said.
Reserve 22 also is experimenting with bitter spirits such as Fernet-Branca amaro. And the bar has a version of the negroni that substitutes prosecco for gin.
"We're doing a modern twist on a lot of classic American cocktails," Soto said. "It's really about being as creative as possible and giving our guests a memorable experience."