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Cocktail bitters can make the difference between an average cocktail and a great one. When it comes to whiskey, bitters are essential for the modern bar because they're a key ingredient in many of the best drinks. From the old-fashioned to the Manhattan, bitters play a vital role. Approximately a decade ago, Angostura Aromatic Bitters was king of the bitters scene, but now we have a great variety to choose from.
These bitters are best for your favorite whiskey cocktails.
Best Overall: Angostura Bitters Set
Found in a variety of recipes
The most well-known bitters brand
A bar staple
Smaller bottle; lasts 25 to 30 drinks
Angostura is the king of bitters due to its longevity. It would have been the only brand of bitters stocked in most bars 20 years ago. This bottle is instantly recognizable thanks to its oversized label, and it remains indispensable for any well-stocked bar.
Essential in a Manhattan cocktail as well as an old-fashioned, Angostura Aromatic Bitters have a pronounced tamarind and cinnamon flavor. If you come across any cocktail recipe that simply says "bitters," it's very likely that it was written with this bottle in mind.
Size: 4 ounces | ABV: 44.7% | Ingredients: Alcohol, water, sugar, gentian, natural flavors, and caramel color
“Bitters is the seasoning for cocktails—it’s our salt and pepper. When working with whiskeys, I find Angostura bitters work particularly well. It has wonderful notes of herbs and spices that complement whiskeys nicely.” — Heidi Turzyn, Mixologist at Contento in New York City
Best Orange: Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6
Adds beautiful flavors to any spirit
A classic cocktail component
Bold flavors if heavy-handed
Shines particularly with brown spirits
Created by cocktail guru and author Gary 'Gaz' Regan, these orange bitters have a pronounced cardamom undertone. While there are many orange bitters available on the market today, Regans' Orange Bitters are among the favorites for professionals.
These bitters work well in just about any cocktail and are especially effective when accenting great whiskey drinks. Add a dash or two to beverages like the Liberal Cocktail or Fancy Whiskey, and taste the magic for yourself.
Size: 5 ounces | ABV: 45% | Ingredients: Water, alcohol, bitter orange extract, herbs, caramel
Best Spiced: Peychaud's Aromatic Cocktail Bitters
Another classic bitters brand
Lighter and fruitier than most bitters
Excellent in a Sazerac
Cuts through sweetness
Star anise flavors can get pretty potent
Contains food coloring
Essential for making a Sazerac cocktail, Peychaud's Bitters offers up light Christmas spice notes, including clove and nutmeg. The 18th-century recipe even includes a hint of cherry. As with most bitters formulas, the secret recipe is one that is well-kept.
Not only is Peychaud's a fantastic addition to classic drinks, but you'll also want to use them to spice up modern creations. A perfect example is the American whiskey and sake recipe known as the Manhattan Love Story. Here, the bitters play well against the spice of a ginger liqueur and the result is phenomenal.
Size: 5 ounces | ABV: 35% | Ingredients: Water, alcohol, herbs and spices, caramel, certified food color
“Bitters are a quintessential ingredient when making a classic cocktail. Remember that the classic definition of a cocktail is spirit, water, sugar and bitters.” — Lynn House, Portfolio Mixologist at Heaven Hill Brands
Best Grapefruit: The Bitter Truth Grapefruit Bitters
Unique flavor profile
Excellent paired with rye
Not for fans of white spirits
The Bitter Truth is one of the newer bitters producers. The company has quickly made a splash (or is it a dash?) on the bar scene. While The Bitter Truth offers many great flavored bitters, its grapefruit is one of the most notable.
Grapefruit and hops combine to make this heady, complex bitters. Try using it in drinks containing rye whiskey. A dash or two can add new life to the Algonquin, a classic rye and pineapple recipe. It also does wonders in the slightly fruity Millionaire Cocktail.
Essentially, if a whiskey cocktail has a hint of bright fruits, try The Bitter Truth Grapefruit Bitters. You'll be surprised at the results.
Size: 200 milliliters/6.76 ounces | ABV: 44% | Ingredients: Water, alcohol, sugar, natural herbs and spices
Best Chocolate: Scrappy's Bitters Chocolate Bitters
Adds dimension to a Manhattan or Aperol
Plays well in desserts
Balances sweetness in coffee drinks
Flavors take some work to perfect
A Manhattan cocktail takes on a completely different flavor profile with these bitters. You will also find that an old-fashioned cocktail is made with a nice sweet bourbon like Four Roses is heavenly. Look for cocktails containing whiskey and Green Chartreuse to feature this in as well.
Size: 5 ounces | ABV: 47.6% | Ingredients: Alcohol, distilled water, organic cacao, organic herbs, and spices
“I love using chocolate bitters with whiskey,” says Turzyn. “I find the chocolate bitters complement whiskey and offer notes of cherry, walnut, cardamom, and vanilla bean, which play off the oak beautifully."
Best Cherry: Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry Bitters
Not too sweet
Adds layers of spice
Complements dark spirits of all kinds
Works best with dark spirits
Not only does Woodford Reserve make great bourbon, but it also makes incredible bitters. In particular, the spice cherry flavor is quite the hit. Inspired by the Woodford Reserve distillery and aged in real bourbon oak barrels, this premium bitters bottle complements dark spirits of all sorts. Add a couple of drops to your Manhattan, old-fashioned, or any other essential whiskey cocktail for first-rate spiced cherry flavor.
Size: 2 ounces | ABV: 45% | Ingredients: Alcohol, water, natural flavors (gentian root, cherry, spices)
“Bitters aren't usually the most prominent flavor, but when they're missing, you'll notice that something is wrong." — Harry Jamison, General Manager of a.kitchen+bar in Philadelphia
Best Gift Set: The Bitter Truth Cocktail Bitters Travel Set
Includes a full selection of bitters
Includes carrying case
Bottles are tiny
This travel set from The Bitter Truth gives globetrotters the option to experiment with a variety of drinks no matter where life takes them. The pack includes five different-flavored 20-milliliter bottles including aromatic, orange, celery, creole, and Jerry Thomas, inspired by the late New York City bartender and "father of American mixology."
For ultimate protection and portability—and a dash of style—all five mini bitters bottles arrive in a charming tin box suitable for carry-on bags and, ultimately, a final destination on the home bar of the cocktail connoisseur on your gifting list.
Size: 100 milliliters per bottle | ABV: 38% ABV | Ingredients: Water, alcohol, herbs, spices, beat sugar
“The essential bitters to keep around would be an aromatic bitters (Angostura is the most popular), an orange bitters, and maybe some Peychaud's bitters if you're a big fan of Sazeracs or Vieux Carrés,” says Jamison. “Those will cover the bases for almost any cocktail you'll be making at home.”
What to Look for in Bitters
While the classic bitters flavors are Angostura, Orange, and Peychaud’s, there’s a world of whiskey bitters beyond them. If you’re first experimenting with the flavors of bitters, Angostura is a great bottle to start with. After you master that, try experimenting with more unusual flavors, like chocolate and grapefruit.
While most bitters brands are small-batch, a good rule of thumb is to look for bitters that use local or thoughtfully sourced herbs.
What are bitters and what do they do to whiskey?
“Cocktail bitters are an alcohol-based flavoring preparation often containing roots, bark, herbs and various spices,” explains Ektoras Binikos, the co-owner and mixologist of Sugar Monk in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. “Bitters add dimension to any cocktail while balancing the chemical reaction between the sweet and sour components, providing a bridge between the flavors.”
“Bitters work very well with lots of whiskey-based cocktails,” he continues. “They supply additional earthy notes, pairing well with the aromatic components of any whiskey aged in wood barrels. They add volume as they lengthen the finish on your palate the same way tannins do for wine”
How much bitters should you add to whiskey?
Megan McClinton, the general manager at Blackland Distillery in Fort Worth, Texas, notes that you should “treat bitters similar to seasoning food with salt and pepper. A dash or two will add a depth of flavor—a base note to your cocktails.”
What are some drinks that contain whiskey bitters?
The standard whiskey cocktails that require bitters are old-fashioneds, sours, and Sazeracs. Beyond those, the possibilities are endless; bitters will add layers of flavors.
“In a classic whiskey sour, the bitters engage your palate with their bitter taste, balancing the sugar and citrus notes and adding complexity to the cocktail, hence creating a more interesting flavor,” says Binikos.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Lance J. Mayhew, the author of this piece, was a bartender and bar manager for over 16 years. During his time behind the bar, Lance received numerous accolades for his creative and seasonal cocktail creations.
Kate Dingwall updated this piece. She is an experienced spirits and drinks writer. She has been writing about the bar and spirits world for six years and has concocted several of her own bitters batches out of her home. For this article, she interviewed master mixologist Ektoras Binikos, distilling expert Megan McClinton, general manager of a.kitchen+bar Harry Jamison, national spirits specialist and portfolio mixologist for Heaven Hill Brands Lynn House, and mixologist at Contento Heidi Turzyn.