Bitters are an aromatic, concentrated infusion of botanicals in an alcohol base. They are a common bar mixer that add sparks of flavor to cocktails like the old-fashioned and martini. In the early definition of a cocktail, bitters were even considered a required ingredient. While many bartenders and drinkers left them out of many drinks for years, with a renewed interest in classic cocktails, bitters are back!
Today, the selection of cocktail bitters goes far beyond Angostura, which was the most popular brand for decades. Aromatic and orange bitters are used often, and you can add unique complexity to drinks with new flavors like celery, lavender, and root beer bitters. Exploring the great variety of bitters available leads to some fascinating cocktail possibilities.
What Are Cocktail Bitters?
Many brands of bitters began as medicinal tonics. They soon found a home in cocktails as concentrated flavor enhancers that add a nice kick to the mix, even though they are only used by the dash. The often secret formulas include a variety of herbs, fruits, spices, and roots distilled in a base liquor.
Bitters can range from 20 percent to 50 percent alcohol by volume. Since they're used in such small quantities, they generally do not factor into a drink's alcohol content.
It's important to differentiate cocktail bitters from bitter herbal spirits. Designed as aperitifs or digestifs, liquors such as Aperol, Campari, Cynar, and Fernet Branca have a dominant bitter taste. They're sometimes just called "a bitter" or an "amaro" (plural: "bitters" and "amari"), sold in full-sized bottles, and can be enjoyed alone or added to cocktails in shot-sized increments. On the other hand, cocktail bitters (or just "bitters," rarely singular), are the concentrated potions that come in small bottles and a few dashes are all that's needed for a single cocktail.
Angostura is the most popular brand of bitters. For years, whenever a cocktail recipe required "bitters," it was assumed that you would pick up a bottle of Angostura Aromatic Bitters. While there are other options today, this bottle should still be considered a must when stocking a bar and useful in everything from a metropolitan to pink gin.
The Angostura story began in Angostura, Venezuela. In 1824, a German doctor named Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert created this secret blend of tropical herbs and plants with the intent of curing a variety of illnesses. The brand is now based in Trinidad and the recipe remains a well-kept secret.
The oversized, awkward label has also become a trademark of the brand (as well as other bitters). It's said that the wrong size was ordered and everyone in the facility thought someone else would fix the mistake. No one did and the label remains.
In 2008, Angostura released their orange bitters. This bottling has the same signature label as its aromatic counterpart so it is easily recognizable on the shelf. The clear bitters hold a citrus taste and complement cocktails like the orange martini, or any mix in which a touch of acidic, bitter citrus is needed.
Antoine Peychaud was an apothecary in 1830s New Orleans and began his mixing career in his pharmacy after-hours. It was at that time that Peychaud mixed up his secret bitters recipe with brandy and absinthe and created the first Sazerac, a cocktail that defined and influenced future cocktails.
Peychaud's Aromatic Cocktail Bitters have a very different taste than other aromatic bitters; it's a stronger anise flavor, reminiscent of absinthe, rather than a spiced herbal blend. Though this brand of bitters is called for often in cocktail recipes, it's still good to use Peychaud's more selectively than you would Angostura.
Fee Brothers Bitters
Fee Brothers has a line of bitters that has been produced in Rochester New York since the 1950s. What started for the family in 1847 as a butcher, then liquor, shop developed into a winery and importer. The bitters came later and rose in popularity with the distinction of being one of the most diverse lines of bitters. Today, they also produce other high-quality cocktail mixers, including an olive brine for dirty martinis.
The brand's Old-Fashion Aromatic Bitters rival Angostura's in taste and usefulness, and they produce two styles of orange bitters. Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters can replace the aromatic variety and are an excellent addition to modern cocktails like the rustic Manhattan.
It is in the more unusual flavors that Fee Brothers is even more fun to explore. The selection includes black walnut, celery, grapefruit, mint, peach, and plum, all of which add an intriguing twist to a variety of drinks. Be sure to try the rhubarb bitters in the spring-worthy rhubarb collins recipe, too.
Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6
Regans' Orange Bitter No. 6 is a shining star in the cocktail world. It was the idea of cocktail experts and authors Gary and Mardee Regan who wanted a better orange bitter. Inspired by an old recipe, the couple developed their own in the 1990s, resulting in versatile bitters of orange peel, cardamom, caraway, coriander, and other herbs. It's a perfect match for any cocktail that requires or could use orange bitters, including classics like the fancy whiskey and modern creations such as the fall spice cordial.
Scrappy's was one of the first handcrafted bitters labels in the United States. The company started in 2008, and bitters have remained the brand's focus. Their simply flavored bitters are extremely useful in a variety of cocktails. For instance, try the cardamom bitters in a reimagined poinsettia punch, or the lavender bitters in a lavender martini.
Scrappy's chocolate, celery, grapefruit, lime, and orange bitters are equally handy in the bar. You'll also find interesting options like Black Lemon with a hint of spice, and their Orleans Bitters has that anise-forward kick found in Peychaud's. For spicy cocktails, try Scrappy's Fire Tincture (not a bitter) with habanero pepper.
Another artisanal bitters brand, Bittercube provides creative bitters that can turn many favorite cocktails into spectacular new drinks. The Wisconsin-based producer's Bolivar bitters are aromatic and can be used in any cocktail calling for bitters, while the Jamaican No. 1 (ginger-forward) and No. 2 (hibiscus-forward) bitters are designed for tropical cocktails. The Blackstrap bitters will add baking spice flavors to hot cocktails, and the root beer gives any drink an old-time sarsaparilla feel. Additionally, you won't want to pass up the chance to use Bittercube's Cherry Bark Vanilla in any rye whiskey drink.
The Bitter Truth Bitters
The Bitter Truth concentrates on recreating old bitters recipes for use in classic cocktails. From their portfolio of flavors, you can easily stock an entire bar with a variety of bitters and experiment with drinks to your heart's content. They produce the most popular flavors, including aromatic, chocolate, celery, peach, and citrus fruits. Yet, there are some unique finds as well.
Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters is based on one of the famous 19th-century bartender's original recipes and perfect for any classic cocktail or as a substitute for aromatic bitters. The Creole Bitters are a fun blend of spices that will shake up any old-fashioned, while the Tonic Bitters have fantastic citrus notes ideal for (you guessed it) a gin and tonic.
The Bitter End Bitters
When you want to really give your mixed drinks a culinary spin, The Bitter End is sure to have the right bitters for you. There are recipes like the cocoa old-fashioned for the Mexican mole bitters and The Bitter End has a number of cocktail suggestions on their website. Beyond that, however, these flavors will require your imagination.
The Bitter End lineup is inspired by a wide range of regional culinary spice blends. You'll find Chesapeake Bay, Jamaican Jerk, and Memphis Barbecue bitters. They also make bitters inspired by Moroccan and Thai cuisines, as well as curry. These options offer an adventure in flavor for anyone open to new tastes (and an understanding that you will find some poor matches). The best advice is to think of the types of drinks you might eat with that particular food, then see how the bitters work out.