Bitters: A Cocktail Companion

Bitters are crucial to cocktails. A fact that can be easy to overlook when you’re first getting into making cocktails at home. They are essential to such classics as the old-fashioned, Sazerac, and the Manhattan. As early as 2004, only three commercial brands of bitters remained after prohibition wiped them out more than 70 years earlier. Now, with the craft cocktail revival, hundreds of bitters are once again on the market.

History of Bitters

Bitters originated in Europe centuries ago as a digestive aid and medicinal help. They were used in cocktails at least by 1806 when the editor of a New York newspaper defines a cocktail as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters…”

From the late 1800s to prohibition, hundreds of brands of bitters were on the market. However, by the end of prohibition, only two brands survived–Angostura and Peychaud’s. By the end of the twentieth century, bitters were mostly a forgotten product.

What are Bitters?

I prefer Brad Thomas Parsons’ definition of bitters from his groundbreaking book, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All:

“Bitters are an aromatic flavoring agent made from infusing roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, spices, herbs, flowers, and botanicals in high-proof alcohol (or sometimes glycerin).”

Bitters, sampled on their own, do taste bitter (duh!). But it’s a common misconception to assume that adding bitters to your cocktail will make a cocktail bitter. Bitters add complexity and subtle hints of flavor that cannot be found in any other ingredient.

“Bitters are the ultimate matchmaker: just a dash or two can bring a perfect balance to two seemingly incompatible spirits. Adding bitters can tramp down an overly sweet drink, help cut through richness, unite disparate ingredients, and add aromatic spiciness" (Parsons).

Two Types of Bitters

There are two types of bitters that we think of when we’re talking spirits and creating cocktails:

  • Cocktail bitters are used to add flavor and complexity to cocktails. They are applied in dashes or drops. These are the kind this blog post focuses on. They are rarely drank on their own.
  • Potable or digestive bitters are meant to increase the appetite or aid in digestion. They are consumed on their own or in a cocktail, but with greater quantities than just a couple dashes. Examples of these are Aperol, Ramazzotti, and Fernet Branca.

Most Common Bitters

  • Angostura Bitters: The most famous cocktail bitter, due to its unusual label and its survival of prohibition. When a recipe calls for aromatic bitters, this is what comes to people’s minds most often. This should be your first bitters purchase.
  • Peychaud’s Bitters: Possibly the first commercial bitter. It’s the only bitter that can be used in the classic Sazerac cocktail.
  • Orange Bitters: After aromatic bitters, orange is the most popular flavor. Many companies make them but Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 (made by cocktail author Gary Regan) are the most common.

Hundreds of bitters are on the market with more created every month. Some standard flavors are celery, chocolate, and grapefruit. Other bitters that are a little more “out there” are curry, Memphis barbecue, bacon, and papaya.

Stock your shelf with Angostura first. Then choose your next bitters based off cocktails you’ve enjoyed in a bar or a flavor you’d like to experiment with. I recommend buying several varieties from different companies to better understand the complexity of bitters. And if by chance you find yourself becoming a bitters nerd (like me), then pick up Parsons’ book for a comprehensive look at these potent little drops of flavor.

Be on the lookout for a blog post tomorrow with the best places to buy bitters in Seattle.