Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
Bitters are an integral part of cocktail culture; an indispensable tool in crafting the flavor profile of mixed drinks. We are apt to think of them as “cocktail bitters” as a result, but the reality is that the concept of “bitters” far predates the first use of the term “cocktail.” Rather, they came to us as the medicinal tinctures of old, the apothecary concoctions and folk healer remedies recommended to treat everything from gout to malaria.
But what are “bitters,” really? How are they made? And more importantly, in a marketplace for bitters that has exploded with new brands in the last decade, which bitters should you own for your home bar? Where can you find the things? We’ll endeavor to answer all of those questions.
Bitters, first of all, are perhaps best-defined as strongly flavored tinctures that are typically alcohol-based themselves. They are classically made by infusing either a common form of liquor (such as vodka, rum or brandy) with herbs, spices, barks, roots or fruits, or by using neutral distilled spirits to achieve the same effect.
It is technically possible to make some form of entirely non-alcoholic bitters using methods like steam-infusion, but you can’t make bitters by simply steeping herbs or spices in water—an alcoholic solution is necessary to draw the oils from those flavoring agents and keep them in suspension. As a result, “non-alcoholic bitters” are very rare, but the use of alcohol-based bitters in “non-alcoholic” drinks is still common. Why? Because you’re typically only using a few dashes at a time—an amount of alcohol that is so small, it’s virtually nonexistent in a practical sense. For those who choose not to consume alcohol, this can make bitters an extremely useful tool for injecting interesting new flavors into soft drinks, in a relatively guilt-free way.
The origin of what we might think of as “bitters” goes back as far as ancient Egypt, where medicinal herbs were used to fortify fermented wine, but they wouldn’t have taken on a more recognizable form until the Middle Ages, when distilled alcohol became more commonplace to apothecaries and tinkerers. Commercially available bitters would then have arisen alongside commercially available spirits in the 17th and 18th century, but they were still largely being used as medicinal supplements, tonics and folk remedies. Increasingly, however, bitters were used in conjunction with wine as a flavoring tool, before finding their way into preparations of spirits. The dawn of the 1800s saw the first reference to the word “cocktail” in publication, defined as follows: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”
Bitters have been seated at the right hand of the American bartender ever since. But what kinds of bitters should you keep stocked for your home bar?
What Bitters Are Essential?
Not all bitters are created equal, and indeed even the name “bitters” itself can be rather misleading. The American palate often possesses an innate fear of bitterness, which has surely turned some drinkers off from exploring the category entirely. But although there are indeed some very strongly bitter tinctures out there, many bitters aren’t really particularly bitter at all. Some of them, in fact, are really quite sweet. Others are strongly fruit, spice or herb-forward. As with amaro, they exist on a spectrum—one that goes all the way from bracingly bitter to intensely sweet. This is especially true in the modern bitters market, where a brand exists to suit seemingly every palate.
As for where you can acquire these bitters, your local package store is a good place to start. They’re sure to carry the basics, and many shops increasingly possess a wide variety of flavored bitters. Specialty liquor stores are even more likely to offer a veritable menagerie of bitters, but in order to find specific brands you will likely need to turn online. Bitters can be purchased at major online retailers such as Total Wine, but are also often available directly from the manufacturer. A good bet is to simply find a company you like, such as 18.21 Bitters, and order directly from them online.
As for what kinds of bitters you’ll want to have a versatile home bar, I’ve separated them into five general families, as it were. Ideally, you’ll want to have representatives of each family for your home bar.
When people who are new to bitters think of “cocktail bitters,” aromatic bitters are what they’re picturing. This is the most common and classical genre of bitters, as exemplified by the most famous bitters brand of them all, Angostura Bitters. Traditionally, this style of bitters is made with complex blends of spices, barks and herbs to achieve a warming, slightly sweet quality that is balanced with a bitter backbone. They may pack a sweeter “Christmas cookie”-type spice profile, or may have more of a “hot and spicy” quality—much is dependent upon the style of alcohol they’re based around. Common flavor notes include cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla and citrus. Regardless, these are basically the Swiss army knife of bitters.
Angostura is the classic here, and you really can’t have a bar without it, given that it’s the classic bitters called for in so many cocktail recipes such as the Old Fashioned or the Manhattan. A few dashes of Angostura bitters play well in so many different types of drinks, from light spritzes with gin or vodka, to classic Tiki drinks like the daiquiri or mai tai, infusing them with a spicy boost and subtle bitterness. Angostura remains essentially the basic building block of the bitters world, and almost any other bitters brand will have their own version in the same ballpark, often labeled simply as “aromatic” or “old-fashioned” bitters.
The other most notable aromatic bitters brand is Peychaud’s Bitters, associated with the city of New Orleans and known for its distinctly anise/licorice-influenced flavor profile. Peychaud’s is considered essential to making several classic New Orleans cocktails, including the famed Sazerac. Beyond Angostura and Peychaud’s, though, some of my favorite aromatic bitters are from companies such as Dashfire Bitters, Fee Brothers or The Bitter Truth.
Although traditionally used only a dash or two at a time, as a subtle flavoring agent, aromatic bitters such as Angostura have increasingly found their way into bartender experimentation as base liquors in cocktails. The Trinidad Sour, for instance, includes a whopping 1.5 oz of Angostura, alongside orgeat, lemon juice and a small amount of rye whiskey. These types of adventurous cocktails may eventually redefine how we use bitters.
The second most common family of bitters, after aromatic bitters, are citrus-based tinctures. Orange bitters are likely the most common, being made with the peels and essential oils of various types of oranges, but as in other bitters varieties they vary wildly from brand to brand. Something like the classic Regan’s Orange Bitters are quite spice forward, while Fee Brothers Orange Bitters has a much more bright, candy-like citrus sweetness. That makes different varieties of orange bitters better suited to different styles of drinks, depending on the orange flavor you’re seeking.
Beyond the orange, though, there are citrus bitter varieties of every description. Grapefruit bitters are common, but you’ll also find lime bitters, lemon bitters and more. They all have their place, and are endlessly adaptable in cocktails based around whiskey, gin, rum, vodka and beyond.
One of my own favorite ways to consume both citrus and aromatic bitters? Simply shake a few dashes of each into a few ounces of hot water. It tastes like a citrus-infused chai tea, and can be remarkably effective at soothing an upset stomach.
Moving past citrus, many other varieties of fruit can also be used to make bitters. From a company like Fee Brothers alone, you can find cherry bitters, peach bitters, cranberry bitters and plum bitters. The tendency here is often to base bitters flavors around what we would term “stone fruit” or “dark fruit/red fruit” in wine-tasting parlance, using the flavors of stone fruit like peach/apricot/plum or berries like cherry/blackberry in conjunction with sweet spices and bitter herbs/roots.
An excellent example is one of my personal favorite bitters, Old Forester Bourbon’s Bohemian Bitters, developed by master taster Jackie Zykan. Drawing upon her family history in Europe, Zykan created a style of bitters meant to evoke her memories of her father’s cherry-flavored pipe tobacco. The resulting bitters are made with “sour cherries, bourbon, clove, wild cherry bark, gentian root, anise, smoked black pepper and cacao nib.” They’re absolutely lovely in any kind of whiskey drink you can imagine—especially an amaro-infused Black Manhattan—but they’re also quite pleasant to squirt into a can of grapefruit seltzer at the same time for an instant mocktail twist.
This is a wide-ranging category that encompasses more of the oddball varieties of bitters that have come along and been popularized within the last decade, often with very specific themes. That means the likes of The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters, for instance, or Dashfire Bay Leaf Bitters, both of which can add an herbal component to drinks not unlike the root vegetable backbone of a classical culinary mirepoix.
Savory bitters also get much stranger. There’s Bar40 Umami Bitters, for instance, which the company says “strengthens saltiness and sweetness yet can take some of the bite out of sour and bitter compounds without drastically changing the flavour of them.” Or there’s the culinary inspired 18.21 Spicy Creole Bitters, which are “made with whole onion and garlic and 10+ creole spices.” At this point you might be asking if we’re talking about cocktail bitters or a pot of soup, but never doubt the willingness of bartenders and mixologists to experiment. These most likely won’t be the cocktail bitters you’ll be reaching for most often, but you just might find a new favorite among them.
Sweet and Hot-Spicy Bitters
Contrary to the name, bitters can also be used to add sweetness/richness to a drink, or to infuse it with a hot and spicy kick. The latter is most commonly achieved via bitters that are infused with chiles, such as Dillon’s Hot Pepper Bitters, but my wife is also quite fond of Dashfire Sichuan Bitters, which is less “hot” in its spice profile but uses the unique numbing spice of Sichuan peppercorns to deliver a lightly fruity and invigorating flavor profile.
Sweeter bitters varieties, on the other hand, include the ever-popular chocolate bitters, but can also range all the way to such concepts as molasses bitters, rhubarb bitters or black walnut bitters. Some can even be used in the place of syrups or cordials to add sweet flavors with at least some degree of corresponding bitterness.
Ultimately, a versatile home bar will likely include one or two examples from all the broader bitters categories. You’ll need an aromatic, for sure. You may want multiple citrus varieties. Fruited bitters make for a nice change of pace, while savory/sweet/hot bitters allow the bolder home mixologist to really explore their wild side.
It’s a wide open field that is ready for exploring, so go out and grab some bitters today.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.