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What are Bitters Anyway? The True Story Behind Bitters

Not bitter; bad, but bitter; good!

What are bitters anyway?
What are bitters anyway?

No home-bar is complete without a bottle or two of bitters. Try making an old-fashioned without bitters–it’s not happening.

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Danny Devito says no.

But what are bitters anyway? and why are they essential in building some of the most classic cocktails we know? Let’s dive into the history of these tinctures, their characteristics, and how best to employ them in building your next drink.

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What are Bitters?

Bitters are a mix of botanicals, spices, and/or fruits steeped in a neutral, high alcohol spirit. The mix of ingredients used varies deeply from producer to producer, and are usually closely guarded secrets. That said, a common thread between them is a bitter taste profile that adds complexity to cocktails. 

What Are Potable and Non-Potable Bitters?

It’s important to know the difference between potable and “non-potable” bitters. Potable bitters are made by similarly infusing bitter botanicals into alcohol. However, the product will be diluted and sweetened, either during or after production. This makes the liquor accessible both for mixing and stand-alone sipping. Examples of this include Amaros.

This article will focus on the use of “non-potable” bitters, such as Angostura, which are absolutely safe to consume but can be exceedingly unpleasant to do so without a buffer.

An All Too Brief History of Bitters

Bitters have a long history, dating all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. Botanicals, like barks, stems, and seeds, have long been used to treat ailments. Alcohol, offering an environment that can easily extract beneficial properties of these ingredients and keep them sterilized, was employed to create all sorts of healing tinctures. 

Seeds, bark, and spices commonly used to make bitters.
Seeds, bark, and spices commonly used to make bitters.

Cocktail bitters as we know them today were largely made in the 19th century, again being pitched for their medicinal or life-enhancing qualities. As science progressed and modern medicines became mainstream, the same bitters used to treat headaches or cure stomach aches were repurposed to make mixed drinks taste better. 

Why Add Bitters to a Cocktail?

Using a bitter flavor profile in your drink adds complexity and structure, but how? To answer that, consider the five primary tastes our tongues can process:

  1. Salty
  2. Sweet
  3. Acidic
  4. Bitter
  5. Umami (the savory flavor of meat) 

In food, as in cocktails, the way to strike balance and intrigue in a dish is by pitting two or more of these profiles against each other. Think about how coffee tastes with just the right amount of sugar added, how a little sweetness dampens the sharp edge of an otherwise black coffee to reveal a bouquet of chocolate, roasted nuts, and spices. 

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A dash of bitters.

Furthermore, consider your Old Fashioned. A dash of bitters gives the sugar a subject to converse with, building intrigue around the naturally robust flavors of the bourbon.

Who Makes Bitters and What Are They Like?

There are many brands of bitters on the market, each with their own unique qualities. Probably the most widely available bottle is Angostura bitters, an almost 200-year-old brand with ingredients originally derived from Venezuela. It was developed and produced in the town of Angostura (now known as Ciudad Bolivar) in 1824 by J.G.B Siegert, a German-Venezuelan physician. 

Instantly recognizable by its oversized label and yellow cap, Angostura has one of the best reputations in the cocktail world for adding a woodsy, baking spice depth to cocktails. It’s also frequently dashed into plain seltzer as a cure for a stomach ache, a holdover from its original medicinal usage in the 1800s. 

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A bottle of Angostura Bitters.

After Angostura, no conversation about bitters is complete without mentioning Peychaud’s. Licorice driven and slightly fruitier than many of its contemporaries, Peychaud’s is used by name in the original recipe for the Sazerac, a New Orleans classic. 

These two bitters certainly dominate the market. However, many smaller producers are on the rise to provide unique flavor combinations to your cocktail arsenal. Reagan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, made in the 1990s, is a bartender favorite for adding a zesty yet comforting orange and spice profile to cocktails. 

Fee Brothers, based in Rochester, NY, makes a range of bitters, from an old-fashioned style to rival Angostura, to bottlings like chocolate, mint, and peach. And relative newcomer Scrappy’s Bitters, freed from traditional expectations, produces envelope-pushing styles like celery, lavender, and black lemon. 

Which Cocktails Use Bitters?

There are a variety of different cocktails that can be enhanced with a couple of dashes of bitters, including any variation of sour cocktails, the Abbey Cocktail, The Amber Dream, The Martinez, and the list goes on and on. 

Probably the most well-established use of cocktail bitters goes to the original cocktail, the Old Fashioned. As mentioned previously, the bitters here act as a counterpoint to the sugar, providing a structure for the bourbon. The wonderful thing about knowing how an Old Fashioned works is that there are many variations on the drink to easily experiment with. 

Old-fashioned cocktail.
Old-fashioned cocktail.

One of the most famous deviants is the Manhattan, which adds sweet vermouth to the mix; great for those who prefer a less stiff drink. 

Another riff, as previously mentioned in the article, is the Sazerac, a classic that employs rye, sugar, an absinthe rinse, and Peychaud’s bitters. If gin is your thing, swap it out for the bourbon, and you have the beautifully colored Pink Gin. 

These are just a few examples of how the base of the Old Fashioned can be used to explore the range of cocktail bitters.

Bitters are also frequently used in a number of Tiki drinks. The idea here is to balance the overwhelming sweetness of fresh fruit juices, liqueurs, and rums to better elevate the experience. 

Bottle of Don Papa rum brands with Moai rum brands mug.
Bottle of Don Papa rum brands with Moai mug.

The Zombie, using light and dark rums, curacao, multiple citrus juices, passion fruit puree, grenadine, and bitters, obviously uses them to ground the drink’s sappy sweetness. 

Bitters can also take center stage on some adventurous drinks, such as the Trinidad Sour and the Sawyer. Both employ about an ounce of the stuff each, making them an intriguing experience for a seasoned cocktail enthusiast (though perhaps a regrettable mistake for the uninitiated). 

And finally, why get boozy at all when the classic bitters and soda is available to sip on? Refreshing and comforting, try using dashes from different flavored bitters to give a La Croix-like whisper of flavor and texture to your seltzer.

How are Bitters Made?

If you have ever wanted to learn how to make your own bitters, check out this video from Artisans List where they show you how to make your own bitters from home.

How to Make Your Own Cocktail Bitters.
Bitters Ingredients
Bayleaf and pepper.

Conclusion: What are bitters?

The bitter end… Understanding the history, usage, and possibilities of cocktail bitters will help you in becoming a better mixologist and party host. Experiment with different brands and flavors to find what your palate prefers, and try out new and different cocktails with them.

What are some of your favorite bitters to use for cocktails? And what other topics would you like us to write about? Let us know in the comments below. As always, stay home, stay safe, get hammered.

Written by Sam Freeman

Sam has enjoyed a healthy career in the NYC hospitality industry, spending a decade as a chef before pivoting to the front of house with a concerted focus on wine and spirits. When not recommending wine pairings or cocktail ideas to guests, he can be found cooking over-elaborate dinners for his fiancee or cycling through the five boroughs.

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