What Are Bitters? An Explainer
Dashes of bitters, such as the well-known Angostura or Peychaud’s, have long completed the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Sazerac and other classic cocktails. During the craft cocktail renaissance of the early aughts, the types of bitters available to bartenders began to multiply. But what are these drops of flavor and why do bartenders use them? Here, experts break down the bitter basics.
What Are Bitters?
Bitters are essentially extractions of fruit, spices and botanicals in a spirit, such as vodka. As the name suggests, they require a bittering agent, such as gentian root, wormwood or cinchona bark. The mixture is left for a few days to a few weeks, allowing the alcohol to extract the botanical essences.
A Brief History of Bitters
The use of bitters for medicinal purposes can be traced back to ancient China, India, Egypt, Africa and Greece. From the Middle Ages through the 19th century, apothecaries would infuse alcohol with spices, barks and herbs to create tonics for indigestion, inflammation, malaria and other ailments.
For some early Americans, drinking bitters was a morning ritual, and drams of them were often sold in bars. These tiny vials of booze—often with Madeira, rum or brandy as a base—might be flavored with juniper, mint, orange peel, spicebush berries or mugwort.
Today, Angostura and Peychaud’s tend to be the most familiar bitters. They have been around since the 1800s and each play central roles in classic American cocktails. In the early 2000s, companies such as Bittermens, Scrappy’s Bitters, The Bitter Truth and Hella Cocktail Co. reignited the category and are slowly becoming more recognizable.
Why Are Bitters Used in Cocktails?
“I would analogize them to the salt and pepper of the bar,” says Tobin Ludwig, co-owner of Hella Cocktail Co. who started out making bitters more than a decade ago in a Brooklyn, New York, apartment with co-owners Jomaree Pinkard and Eddie Simeon.
Nelson German, chef and owner of Sobre Mesa restaurant and cocktail lounge in Oakland, California, echoes that sentiment. “It is amazing how they add complexity,” he says.
New York City’s Amor Y Amargo is so devoted to bitters that out front is a cozy shop selling hundreds of tinctures in almost every flavor imaginable—cardamom, yuzu, Memphis barbecue and green strawberry among them. Sother Teague, the bartender and cocktail consultant who helped open the establishment in 2011, perhaps sums up the appeal of bitters best: “You wouldn’t eat unseasoned soup, so why would you drink an unseasoned cocktail?” he says. “It’s the finishing touch. The thing that ties the ingredients together.”
How Are Bitters Made?
Making bitters seems straightforward enough. Add fruit peels, stems, barks and spices to neutral alcohol and let them steep for anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Commercial producers dig into every aspect of that process: Which alcohol to use, which combination of botanicals, temperature and extraction times.
Hella Cocktail Co. makes bitters by filling giant tea bags with spices, peels and botanicals and letting them infuse in stainless-steel tanks. “Time is a really important component,” says Ludwig. Once the extraction process is over and components are blended back together, water is added to dilute the mixture, which usually ends up between 35% and 45% alcohol by volume.
For Vancouver’s Ms. Better’s Bitters, timing is crucial. “I really believe in letting each ingredient have its moment. Certain ingredients will need more time, some will need less,” says Sam Unger, who co-founded the company with her family.
What Do Bitters Taste Like?
Bitters have a subtle bite, plus phantom-like hints of fruit peel, leaves, roots and other botanicals depending on the ingredients used. Add a few dashes to a cocktail, and they lend subtle layers of floral, herbal or fruit-driven complexity.
Beyond the classic bitters, the possibilities are almost limitless in terms of what you can use to make them. “Name a flavor, and it probably exists,” says Teague. “The sky is the limit—sriracha bitters, barbecue bitters, Old Bay seasoning bitter. It’s gone exponentially crazy.”
Types of Bitters
Cocktail bitters are (unsurprisingly) intended for use in cocktails. In the last 15 years, the types of bitters available to home and professional bartenders has expanded exponentially, with virtually no ceiling on what can be infused into alcohol.
For example, a fresh bottle of Ms. Better’s Bitters Green Strawberry Mah Kwan emits distinct, delicate aroma of strawberries. Unger has also tried to replicate the flavors of “a chocolate factory on fire” with chilis and caramelized chocolate. Her Mt. Fuji bitters are a complex melange of peaches, burdock, chrysanthemum and yuzu.
But, Angostura and Peychaud’s are among the original cocktail bitters and likely the most familiar.
Angostura bitters, which have warming notes of cinnamon and clove, are a type of cocktail bitter that dates back to 1824, when a German doctor in Venezuela created them to ease stomach ailments. Produced by the House of Angostura, which has been headquartered in Trinidad since the 1870s, the formula has remained largely unchanged since. “When many old recipes say ‘bitters,’ they mean Angostura,” says Teague.
Peychaud’s cocktail bitters were created in New Orleans in the 1830s by Antoine Amedée Peychaud, a Haitian-American apothecary. It is bittered with gentian and exudes hints of anise, baking spices and cherry. Peychaud’s gets its red hue from cochineal, an insect-based dye.
Orange bitters also have a central role in modern cocktails and draw on orange peel, burnt sugar and spices for their character. In the late 1990s, British-born New York bartender Gary Regan created Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, which became a bartending staple.
Similar to the medicinal bitters of yore, digestive bitters also draw on botanicals, but are crafted as tonics. They are often sold and marketed at health food stores as a means to stimulate saliva and get the digestive system moving. Burlington, Vermont-based Urban Moonshine produces digestive bitters that are found widely online.
The herbaceous aperitifs and digestifs known as amari fall into this category. Though the recipes tend to be guarded, they are produced the same way as bitters, sweetened and left to age. Drinkable bitters tend to be bittersweet and lower in alcohol. They are decanted in larger bottles and designed for drinking in larger quantities rather than adding as a dash into cocktails.
How to Use Bitters
Bitters can serve as the foundation for an array of drinks. German recommends trying a few drops in water or even on your wrist to get a sense for a product’s aromatics.
When building a cocktail he says, “start with two dashes to a maximum of six. You don’t want to overdo it.” German notes that some bartenders start with bitters, but he prefers to add them in the middle of the cocktail making process. “I add my spirits, then my bitters and my syrup and start stirring.”
While German likes to pair bitters with dark spirits, bitters and soda is a favorite zero-proof combo of some bar professionals. It’s an ideal way to sample their essence, says Teague. “You get good aromatics because of the bubbles, and you can dig deep into the bitters. It’s a great way to add a flavor pop to your seltzer without any sugar.”
A final word of advice? Be sure to keep your bottles fresh. It’s best to drink bitters early in their lives, advises Ludwig, and probably within five years.
“Over time, the flavor will diminish a little bit. Younger bitters will be brighter.”