What Are Cocktail Bitters and How Should You Use Them

Cocktail bitters are the spice rack of bartenders, capable of transforming a good drink into a spectacular one.

These concentrated flavor extracts (typically made from a blend of herbs, spices, fruits, and botanicals) come in many shapes, sizes, and flavors. When used properly, they can add depth, complexity, and balance to cocktails.

So, let’s talk about cocktail bitters!


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The History of Cocktail Bitters

Cocktail bitters, like most alcoholic beverages, have their roots in medicine.

Alcohol takes on flavors of whatever it is introduced to, such as herbs and spices. Everyone thought these had healing properties. The first to attempt to infuse herbs into alcohol were the early Egyptians. (Yes, they did much more than build giant pyramids.)

The distilling technique was passed on through generations and cultures and was improved upon as distilled alcohol became more readily available. People came to realize that the higher ABV% (alcohol by volume) in distilled spirits the easier they extracted flavors and aromas, faster and more aggressively.

However, it was in the 19th century when the use of bitters in cocktails truly took off. The credit for popularizing this bitter infusion goes to a renowned doctor named Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, surgeon general in Simon Bolivar’s army settled in the town of Angostura, in what is now modern Venezuela.

The recipe, a secret blend of herbs and spices, gained recognition for its effectiveness in treating digestive disorders.


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From Medicine to Mixology

The use of bitters quickly transitioned from medicinal purposes to the world of cocktails. As bartenders sought to enhance the flavors of their concoctions, they found that a dash of bitters could transform a drink into something truly remarkable.

What Are Bitters?

Bitters are a type of alcohol beverage flavoring made from botanical ingredients such as herbs, fruits, roots, and spices. They are typically used in cocktails to add a complex and bitter flavor that balances out the sweetness of other ingredients.

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Bitters are often used in classic cocktails such as the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Martini, but can also be used in non-alcoholic drinks and even cooking. Bitters are technically alcoholic, but because they are sold in such small bottles and their flavor is so strong, most recipes call for just a dash, making its overall alcohol contribution negligible. This is also why you don’t need to be 21 or older to buy them. They come in a wide range of flavors from citrus and herbal to spicy and smoky.

Why Do I Use Bitters?

OK. I have to admit, I didn’t use bitters early in my career. I started working behind the stick in the late 1980s and all I knew were just a few simple mixes. After a few years in a variety of live music clubs and bars gaining experience, I was offered a job in a fine dining restaurant. It’s when I learned about the real meaning of bartending and the world of cocktails. I started reading mixology books, experimenting with liqueurs and syrups and trying anything to make new cocktails. The first bitter I ever used was Angostura Bitters. I used it in classic cocktails such as the Manhattan and Old Fashioned. The rest is history, and involves many wonderful years of mixing and creating cocktails.

Starting out, I realized bitters were not very popular in the late 80s and early 90s. But they started to gain traction in the 2000s and lately have seen a phenomenal surge of interest.

I love using bitters because of their ability to fashion any drink into something new and exciting. They are just like salt and pepper when you prepare a meal; we all know a pinch of salt or pepper can do miracles, and without them your dish can fall flat.


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Types of Bitters

There are many types of bitters to choose from, and mixologists are constantly creating new and interesting options. Here I am highlighting the most essential bitter styles.

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Aromatic Bitters

Aromatic bitters are the largest and most well-known type of cocktail bitters. Companies flavor their aromatic bitters with herbs, spices, and barks which give them powerful aromas. This is one of the oldest bitters varieties, and it’s required for many traditional cocktail recipes.

Citrus Bitters

Outside of aromatic bitters, citrus bitters are perhaps one of the most widely used bitters at bars across the country. The most common type of citrus bitters is orange.

Orange bitters run the gamut from tasting like a whole ripe and juicy orange to orange marmalade, bitter orange peel, fresh orange zest, or fragrant orange blossom. They are versatile and complement most base spirits including gin, whisky, rum, tequila, and even Scotch whisky.

Other types of citrus bitters include lemon, grapefruit, lime, and yuzu.

Herbal Bitters

Herbal bitters are one of the most varied categories of bitters in terms of flavor and aroma, and therefore these bitters can be hit or miss in the hands of an inexperienced mixologist. One consumer might be transported to a gorgeous meadow with wildflowers while sipping on a drink with lavender bitters, while another might be left remembering the time their mother washed their mouth out with soap.

Flavors like tarragon, thyme, rosemary, violet, basil, and dandelion can be exhilarating, but use them judiciously.

Bean and Nut Bitters

Bean and nut bitters are relatively new inventions, but they are growing in popularity among bartenders and mixologists. Chocolate bitters and coffee bitters are the two most popular bean bitters varieties. Walnut, macadamia, and pecan are the most common nut bitters you will encounter.

Spicy

Spicy bitters get their heat from capsaicin, a chemical compound familiar to those who ever bit into a hot pepper and found themselves with a burning mouth and a sweaty forehead. The type of pepper, or even blend of peppers, used to create spicy bitters changes from brand, but habanero, jalapeno, chipotle, and cayenne are a few of the more commonly used varieties.

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Just remember, when it comes to dashing out spicy bitters, a little really does go a long way.


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Using Cocktail Bitters

Knowing how and when to use bitters is essential for creating well-balanced and memorable cocktails. Here are some key considerations.

Dash or Drops

Bitters are highly concentrated so, as mentioned above, a little goes a long way. Generally, a cocktail recipe calls for a dash or a few drops, depending on the intensity of the flavor desired. Start with a small amount, and gradually increase if needed.

Cocktail Placement

Bitters can be added directly to the drink or used to enhance the aroma by spritzying them over the glass. Experiment with different techniques to find what works best for each cocktail.

Cocktail Pairing

The choice of bitters depends on the base spirit and other ingredients in the cocktail. Aromatic bitters complement whiskey or dark spirits, while citrus bitters work well with clearer spirits like vodka, gin, or tequila. Consider the flavor profile you want to enhance or create and select the bitters accordingly.

Experimentation

Don’t be afraid to explore and experiment with different combinations of bitters. Mixologists often create their signature blends by combining different bitters and flavors, adding a unique twist to their cocktails.

Perfect Moments for Bitters

While bitters can be used in a wide range of cocktails, certain recipes and occasions lend themselves particularly well to their inclusion.

Classic Cocktails

When creating iconic cocktails from the past, such as the Old Fashioned, Sazerac, or Manhattan, bitters are an essential component to capture the authentic flavor profile.

Seasonal Drinks

Bitters can evoke the essence of a season. For example, spiced bitters with cinnamon and nutmeg are perfect for winter-themed cocktails, while herbal or fruity bitters shine during the spring and summer months.

Signature Creations

Bitters provide an opportunity to put your own twist on a cocktail, adding a unique touch that reflects your personal style and taste preferences.


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Well-Known Cocktail Bitter Brands

Angostura Aromatic Cocktail Bitters

The most famous of all cocktail bitters and easily recognized by its oversized label and yellow screw cap, this was the bitters created by the German surgeon general in Venezuela.

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Peychaud’s Cocktail Bitters

Originally created in New Orleans in the 19th century by Antoine Peychaud, an apothecary, Peychaud bitters have a distinctive anise flavor and are used in classic cocktails such as the Sazerac and the Vieux Carre.


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Regan’s Orange Bitters No.6

These bitters were created by cocktail expert Gary Regan and are known for their strong orange flavor with notes of cardamom and other spices.

Scrappy’s Cocktail Bitters

One of the first on the U.S. market to make handcrafted bitters, their bitters range in flavor from lavender to grapefruit to chocolate.


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The Fee Brothers Cocktail Bitters

Well known brand with citrus, bean and nut bitters that are loved worldwide

The Bitter Truth’s Cocktail Bitters

Makes one of the best bitters available on the market right now, focused on being perfect for classic cocktails.

Why Should You Start Using Bitters?

Let’s make it clear. I am not trying to convince you to start using bitters. I merely want you to try and see the difference for yourself. How many times have you tried a new food or drink when on vacation? How many times have you discovered something new and you loved it?

Without trying you’ll never know the difference. Trust me. Once you try and experience the power of the strong taste and rich aroma coming from the bitters, you’ll be hooked and will keep going. I want to say I have a favorite bitter, but it’s hard to place one in front of another.

Bitters All The Way

During my career as a bartender and mixologist, I’ve had the chance, and pleasure, to try many different spirits, liqueurs, syrups, bitters, and mixes. However, I get excited every time I see something new, and I had the chance to try it. I may have a favorite whisky, rum, or gin but my favorite bitters can change from time to time.

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One thing that never changes is the presence of bitters in my bar. No matter how many bottles of spirits I have, bitters are an integral part of my mixology.

I hope this guide is helpful and you’ll give it a go and try some of the many unusual bitters available these days. Enjoy, and never be afraid to try something new.

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