A friend of ours went to her local bar and ordered a cider. She started talking to the bartender, who suggested she add some cocktail bitters to it. She thought the idea interesting and agreed. Then, she tasted her drink.
“Gamechanger,” she said.
That is the power of cocktail bitters. Just a few dashes can transform spirits, wine, cider, sodas and more. They are best known in classic cocktails like the Manhattan or Sazerac. But an explosion of mass- and craft-made bitters has yielded flavors for many styles of drinks.
What Are Cocktail Bitters?
Cocktail bitters are tinctures made of water, alcohol and botanicals (things derived from plants). Think of them like condiments. Use just a few shakes, dashes or drops to enhance the flavor of your drink. You can overdo it, like dumping too much hot sauce in food, so taste as you go when starting out. Bitters can be classified like a food product (like vanilla extract) vs. a beverage (like wine) so you can find them in grocery stores and easily order them online.
Some say that bitters date back to ancient Rome and Egypt. But the origins of what we drink today are about 200 years old and have roots in digestive medicine. (Pssst…if you need a quick refresher on cocktail bitters vs. digestive bitters we have you covered with this article). Either way, they have come a long way. Fancy bar menus call out cocktail bitters by name. They come in citrus, floral, fruity, spicy, sweet, and dare we say, even umami flavors.
“It is absolutely the golden age of bitters,” says Joe Barwin, owner of Bitters & Bottles, a cocktail and spirits retailer.
But too much choice can be paralyzing, so where do you start?
Bitters 101: Tried and True
Aromatic Bitters: If you’re investing in your first bottle of cocktail bitters for your home bar, invest in an aromatic bitters. This category of bitters smells like baking spices and contains roots, barks, and herbs. Angostura aromatic bitters is the most popular brand of aromatic bitters, and some recipes call for it by name (the way that some people call tissues Kleenex). But there are many brands, like The Bitter Truth, that make great aromatic bitters.
Angostura bitters does have a good story though. If you look at the bottle, you’ll notice that the paper label is too big for the bottle. Apparently, the group making the bottle and the group making the label for a competition didn’t talk to each other so the two were mismatched. But the company kind of liked it and has kept it to this day.
We consider the next most-important aromatic bitters to be Peychaud’s bitters, distributed by the Sazerac Company in New Orleans. And that’s because the New Orleans Sazerac and Vieux Carre cocktails, which we love, use it exclusively. This bitters has a strong anise flavor, which can be polarizing. So if that grosses you out, get bitter at us in the comments section and move on to the next category.
Citrus Bitters: A citrus bitters, the most popular being orange, is a crowd pleaser. We like them in an old fashioned or negroni when we’re too lazy to peel an orange for garnish (don’t judge). Angostura’s website says that the original 1930’s classic gin martini calls for orange bitters. If orange isn’t your thing, grapefruit bitters is another option. It’s a great way to dial down sweet drinks.
Bitters 201: Exploratory
Your own palette and the spirits you drink should guide you to your next bottle of cocktail bitters. That may sound like a cop out for a guide to bitters, but it’s true. The spectrum of flavors is vast which means there are cocktail bitters for every palate. If you like gin, look for bitters that enhance the flavors of gin such as cucumber, rose, pine or even rosemary.
If you’re a fruit lover veer towards cherry bitters, cranberry, peach, plum and rhubarb. You can go veggie with celery bitters. You can go dessert-y with chocolate, cinnamon and nut flavors. We’ve let our taste buds travel with cardamom, toasted oak, and tobacco. And we’ve had a particularly interesting Old Fashioned with mole bitters. Check out the recipe at the end for a cocktail with mole bitters .
If you can, find a store that lets you try before you buy. You sample bitters by shaking a few drops on the top of your hand and licking it. Or buy a cocktail bitters set that allows you to sample across many flavors. There are traditional bitters sets and more exotic bitters sets to help you explore.
Bitters 301: Exotic
If you’re still reading, and we thank you, you’re ready to level up to the truly inventive. Bitters & Bottles’ Barwin gave us some recommendations. Monarch Bitters Smoked Salt and Pepper bitters adds a subtle hint of brine and smoke to cocktails. Try it with agave-based spirits like tequila and mezcal. If you want to conjure up the barbie (cue our very best Aussie accent!) with your drink, then try Australian Bitters Smoke Bitters. As the makers say themselves
“Tastes like an old school BBQ pit master named Elroy made camp in your mouth, and you invited him to stay. Big smoky flavors of classic mesquite barbecue.”
We’d like to give this a try with whiskey…and a nice juicy steak!
Ms Betters Kiwi Sumac Souring Bitters is great for the tarts in the audience. Play around with it in place of lemon or lime juice.
Honestly, there are too many great craft bitters today to even remotely do this growing category justice. Whether making cocktails, experimenting by adding them to cider or beer, or simply drinking them with soda water, it’s hard to go wrong. So, indulge your bitter side and explore cocktail bitters as a way to easily elevate your drinking game.
But before you go, we’d like to leave you with a couple of recipes courtesy of Bittermens, a New Orleans-based brand owned by Sazarac, to get you started on your adventure.
Garnish with cucumber slices and a piece of candied ginger
** for low alcohol, 1 1/2 oz of ginger ale, 1/2 oz of rye
Now let’s shift from light, crisp, and refreshing to rich and warming…
Garnish with chocolate shavings.
A dark, spicy way to end the night. What fun or unexpected cocktail bitters have you come across in your tippling? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below to continue our own bitters exploration.
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