Bitters are no longer a secret ingredient that only bartenders know about. But when most of us think about cocktails that take a dash or two of bitters, stiff drinks like a Manhattan and Old Fashioned mostly come to mind. While grapefruit bitters can add a nice finishing touch to those kind of "brown" drinks, where it really shines is the usually bitters-free zone of sparkling, light, refreshing and fruity drinks, the ones usually made with gin, tequila or rum.
Grapefruit is sweet, tart and bitter all at once, so it does triple duty as an ingredient. Grapefruit bitters have the same qualities as the fruit, enhanced by additional citrus and herbal, floral and bitter components. A few dashes of grapefruit bitters can put a so-so sparkling wine cocktail into fabulous territory or turn a limp Paloma or Gin & Tonic into a bright and balanced thing of beauty.
What's Available to Buy?
Even though grapefruit bitters have been called for in cocktail recipes since the 1860s, many liquor stores don't carry them. Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters are the easiest to find, though I prefer the more unusual offerings from Bitterman's and The Bitter Truth—both of which contain hops for a bright, vegetal punch. I've never tried Scrappy's Grapefruit Bitters, but I'm a fan of their bitters in general. Collecting bottles of boutique bitters gets pricey, though.
If you're up for the (relatively minor) challenge of getting your hands on some gentian root, you'll be rewarded with a flexible cocktail ingredient that will liven up a variety of drinks. You'll have the magical power of grapefruit in a tiny bottle that will last you years. Grapefruit is in season now, so you'll have your pick of flavorful fruit. The adventurous can use this recipe as a jumping-off point for some grapefruit bitters experimentation. I stuck with milder flavors, but bolder spices like clove, anise, or cardamom would give you a warmer and deeper grapefruit bitters. If you have hops on hand from homebrewing, try throwing some in for an earthy effect.
DIY grapefruit bitters are really good at adding oomph to effervescent cocktails like the tequila-based Santa Carla, the Lillet of the Valley, made with cider, and the sparkling wine creation Etre en Verve.
Since these bitters complement tequila and gin cocktails in particular, I like a few dashes of grapefruit bitters in my Pegu Club and Margarita. They're also perfect for balancing fruity drinks like a Hurricane or Blackberry Margarita. But don't limit them to cocktails made with clear spirits, as they are a necessity in the rye-based New Brunswick. Of course, a few dashes can also liven up plain soda water, too.