There’s barely a cocktail recipe out there that doesn’t demand a dash of bitters. And rightly so.
After all, what would a Ninth Ward Cocktail be without a dash of New Orleans in the form of Peychaud’s Bitters? And some would say a Pisco Sour would not come together as well without a dash or three of Angostura to anchor it.
A dash, whether it be of bitters or even Absinthe or Maraschino, is there to enhance the flavours of the other base spirits and liqueurs; it is there to add an accent, or in some cases, downright improve the drink to which they are applied.
In recipe books as far back as bartending itself, the term ‘dash’ has been used to describe the amount of bitters (or anything else) a cocktail may require. It is a measurement as old as cocktail themselves and one that has followed the craft through over a century of creation and execution.
And although we all accept it and use it, it is probably one of the least precise or even understood measurements behind the bar.
So what is a dash?
No matter what the Cocktail, a dash (or several) can make all the difference to the taste and appearance of your favourite drink. But a dash is one of those indescribable quantities that leave most people wondering what it actually means.
Some say a quick, hard shake over the mixing glass puts out a dash, while others like to tip the bottle slowly and let gravity coax the liquid, drop by drop, out of the bottle.
Either way, it’s advisable to think about what the ingredient you are dash-ing is really adding. You could view the question of a dash in the same way you might consider a ‘pinch’ in cooking. After all, especially in the case of bitters, what you are adding is just the seasoning, and like salt or pepper, could easily be specified as “to taste”. In that vein, guidance like “a dash” or “two dashes” are perhaps just intended as a good starting point.
If this doesn’t necessarily make things clearer, let’s look at the measurements. Technically a dash is 1/32oz or 0.92mls. Alternatively, you could measure a standard dash as 1/8 of a teaspoon. Unfortunately, there are very few among us that are really that precise. And because of that, a dash is hard to standardise because everyone has a different style of applying it.
The amount of thrust, the angle of the bottle during the shake, or even the amounts of liquid versus air in the bottle, will all contribute to you dash being a little different from someone else’s.
And yet it’s not just the way you dash that counts. It seems that the dasher tops and or dropper tops can be different for each brand of bitters as well.
So what’s a home mixologist to do?
If you’re not sure if you’re adding enough or adding too much, of a particular bitter to your cocktail, start with a single dash, then taste as you go. Realistically, dashes are typically small volumes so that even at the peak of inconsistency, their flavours are not so robust that the difference in the drink is enormous.
One good tip is to buy bitters bottles, particularly the Japanese ones; then you can standardise your dashes as you want them. If you pour all your bitters into the same sized bottle, then work out the right amount for your taste in your drink, then you can quickly work out what is needed in future.
Death & Co in New York is one bar that has taken the dash inconsistency so seriously that they stock all of their bitters in Japanese dasher bottles. They reason that these teardrop-shaped glass bottles with their screw-on metal dasher spouts can pour smaller and more precise quantities than the plastic tops on off-the-shelf bitters bottles.
With this said, they have calculated that a typical dash from a plastic-topped bottle tends to equal about three dashes from a Japanese dasher bottle.
But if things get really dire, the good news is that there is a trend towards drinks that call for more than just a dash of bitters. Cocktails with bitters so prominent they can be measured in ounces are starting to pop up around the country. With the drinks like the Trinidad Sour or the Angostura Sour, where the bitters are the star, there will certainly be no confusion, and we say, bring it on …