Bartenders use bitters on a regular basis because they are the essential ingredient for tying flavors together and bringing balance to cocktails. Bitters impart tasting notes and aromas to drinks while elevating the cocktail’s ingredients.
Just a few dashes of bitters can add depth and complexity, transforming a simple drink into a nuanced and multidimensional concoction, or even a memorable sensory experience.
What are Bitters?
In terms of common cocktail practice; bitters is a catchall term for a concentrated, flavorful liquid extraction of botanical ingredients used in small doses, usually dashes or drops, to augment flavors in beverages.
Sometimes called the salt and pepper of cocktails, or a bartender’s spice rack; bitters are used to balance, integrate, and enhance flavors in drinks or food.
WHAT DO BITTERS TASTE LIKE?
The flavor of bitters varies depending on the specific blend of botanicals (herbs, spices, fruits and florals) used in their production. These are some common tasting notes that are often found in bitters:
- Aromatic Spices: Warming and aromatic baking spices such as cinnamon, clove, and cardamom.
- Citrus: Bright and zesty flavors such as orange, lime, lemon, or grapefruit.
- Bitter: Bitterness from bittering agents like wormwood, gentian root, and cinchona bark.
- Floral: Delicate and elegant floral elements, such as lavender, rose, or chamomile.
Herbal: Earthy and herbaceous flavors from green herbs (thyme, rosemary) and roots (dandelion, angelica).
WHAT ARE BITTERS MADE OF?
Bitters are made with a diverse range of botanicals: plants that are used for culinary and/or medicinal purposes. These botanicals are traditionally infused into alcohol to preserve their flavors and medicinal compounds.
Common botanical ingredients include: Herbs like thyme, lavender, or chamomile; Spices such as cinnamon and cardamom; Citrus peels like orange or lemon. Some bitters are made with exotic ingredients such as fruits, berries, nuts, or spicy chilis.
HOW TO MAKE BITTERS
Long before any bartender added bitters to his cocktail, man had put a leaf into alcohol to preserve and extract its chemical constituents. This process, called tincturing, is an ancient method of giving what might have wilted away, an almost eternal life.
Taking roots, flowers, peels, leaves, or any other botanical matter and letting them soften and release their smells, flavors, and compounds into alcohol not only increases their longevity, but also their potency.
Here is a short breakdown of the traditional process:
- Grinding: The botanical ingredients are crushed, chopped, or ground in order to increase the surface area, improving the penetration of alcohol into the herbal ingredients.
- Maceration: The botanical ingredients are soaked in alcohol for the process of maceration (from the Latin macerare “to soften”). The alcohol softens and breaks down the botanicals over a prolonged period of time which extracts the flavors, aromas and compounds.
- Filtration: Once the maceration is complete, the botanical solids are filtered from the potent infused liquid.
BITTERS VS. TINCTURE
All bitters are tincture, but not all tincture are bitters. Tincturing is the process of macerating, or soaking, your plants in alcohol for a period of days to months to extract, intensify, and preserve their flavor potency in alcohol.
Many botanicals have bitter compounds. As these compounds have been valued for their digestive and flavor balancing qualities, the term bitters became common vernacular used when referring such botanical tinctures.
WHAT ARE BITTERS FOR DRINKS?
HOW TO USE BITTERS
Just like salt and pepper, the most common way to use bitters is to add a small amount, drops or dashes when “building” (that’s mixology for putting together) a cocktail or mocktail in your shaker or glass mixing pitcher. Spritzing the top of a finished cocktail with bitters from an atomizer is also an excellent way to harness the power of the bitters’ aromatics.
Bitters and soda is a traditional digestive aid that is still in use today; however, you don’t need a stomach ache to enjoy adding them to still or sparkling water. Bitters add instant flavor to water, and when combined with a squeeze of lemon the result is a refreshing and thirst quenching non-alcoholic cocktail.
WHAT DRINKS USE BITTERS?
Old Fashioneds are the quintessential cocktail for bitters as they are the key component of this drink whose other ingredients are only whiskey (usually bourbon or rye) and sugar. The bitters add complexity, balance the sweetness from the sugar, and compliment the flavor profile of the whiskey.
Manhattans are a cousin of the Old Fashioned and are made with bitters, whiskey (usually bourbon or rye), and sweet vermouth (instead of sugar). The bitters balance the sweetness of the vermouth as they work together to temper the harsher notes of the whiskey, resulting in a sophisticated and multi-dimensional cocktail.
Sazeracs are an old fashioned variation made with Peychaud’s Bitters in particular, rye whiskey specifically, sugar, and the addition of a small amount of absinthe. The Peychaud’s bitters tie together the herbal notes of the absinthe and the spice of the rye creating a curious and trippy journey of unexpected flavor moments.
non-alcoholic cocktail recipes
Bitters are a great way to give your mocktail more “wow” factor and help it taste more like a traditional cocktail. Add bitters in dashes or drops to your mocktails for the same reasons you add them to cocktails or food: for depth and complexity, to balance sweetness, to introduce layers of aroma, and to add exotic flavors.
HOW MUCH IS A DASH OF BITTERS?
Cocktail recipes call for bitters in amounts of dashes or droppers. A "dash” is a measurement that refers to the estimated amount of liquid that comes out of a bitters bottle, with a dasher top, from a quick flick of the wrist.
Generally, a dash of bitters is around 1/8 of a teaspoon or approximately 0.6 to 0.75 milliliters, but this can vary between different bottles and dashers.
Bitters bottles that use droppers instead of dasher tops allow for more exact measuring. “One dash” = one dropperful. A dropperful is one single squeezing of the bulb or about half of the glass dropper.
WHAT ARE COCKTAIL BITTERS?
Cocktail bitters are formulated and crafted specifically for use in enhancing and augmenting beverages. This category helps differentiate cocktail bitters from bitters that are used for their herbal properties.
Our bitters are formulated for use in craft cocktails, while also taking into account the herbal traditions of each ingredient.
WHAT ARE AROMATIC BITTERS?
Versatile and widely used, aromatic bitters are a type of cocktail bitters named for their strong aromas, which enhance the flavor and scent of a cocktail. Typically made with bitter roots and barks (wormwood, gentian), citrus peels, and spices such as cardamom, allspice, and cinnamon. These aromatics add warmth, depth, and complexity to cocktails.
Aromatic bitters are a staple in classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan. This is also arguably the most famous cocktail bitter category due to the massive popularity of Angostura Bitters with its typical aromatic bitter profile.
WHAT ARE ORANGE BITTERS?
Orange bitters are extremely popular in the bartending world due to their versatility. They are used in a range cocktail types from gin martinis to whiskey sours. They also have deep roots in cocktail history with recipes calling for orange bitters that date back to the late 1800’s.
While orange bitters have a predominately citrus flavor profile, they can also include some aromatic bitter elements such as allspice, gentian, and clove.
Some mixologists prefer to add a combination of orange and aromatic bitters to their Old Fashioned. Our “Cocktail Bitters” blend these two most iconic bitters together for a classic Old Fashioned flavor.
WHAT ARE ANGOSTURA BITTERS?
Angostura Bitters, were created in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, a German physician and botanist, stationed as surgeon general in Venezuela. Siegert originally formulated Angostura in hopes that it would aid the digestive ailments of soldiers fighting in Simón Bolívar’s army for independence from Spain.
One of only two bitters that survived Prohibition, Angostura Bitters went on to become synonymous with cocktail culture, with it’s distinct and recognizable flavor profile and oversized label. It is easily the most iconic and enduring bitters brand in the world.
WHAT ARE PEYCHAUD’S BITTERS?
Peychaud's Bitters are an aromatic bitter that was created by New Orleans pharmacist and apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud in the 1830’s. It was originally created as both a medicinal tonic and cocktail bitter best known for its flamboyant red color and as a featured ingredient in Peychaud’s famed Sazerac cocktail.
Before the prohibition, Peychaud’s had already been marketed and sold as a medicinal tonic for 90 years, which is one of the main reasons it was the second of only two bitters brands to survive the prohibition. Compared to other aromatic bitters, Peychaud’s is on the lighter, sweeter side with distinctive notes of anise and clove.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF BITTERS?
Before modern medicine, those little amber bottles with a bitter tasting liquid were taken to deliver bitter compounds found in certain herbs to the bitter flavor receptors on the tongue. When you taste something bitter, your body activates chemicals that aid digestion. Our ancestors knew this well and consumed bitter plant compounds with their associated flavor for eons. So popular were these herbs, that traces of them have been discovered in the teeth of mummies.
In ancient Egypt, herbs and botanicals were infused in alcohol or other liquids to create medicinal remedies. In ancient Greece and Rome, herbalists and physicians like Hippocrates and Galen used bitter herbs in their medical practices. Bitters were thought to stimulate the appetite and improve digestion.
In the middle ages and renaissance eras physicians, apothecaries and monks in monasteries would create elixirs and tinctures that they used as herbal remedies to address various health issues.
How did bitters become part of drinking? Being culinary creatures seeking to make things more palatable; our ancestors naturally began to experiment with bitters, spirit, and sugar. They added bitter herbs to wine and beer (think hops). They made spirits and infused them with bitter herbs, adding sugar or honey. Here is the origin of the aperitifs, the digestifs, the vermouths, the amari (literally “bitter,” in Italian).
When Jerry Thomas (1830-1885), the father of American mixology, was beginning the craft cocktail tradition, bitters and cocktails went hand in hand. At that time the line between medicine and food was blurrier than it is today. Famous apothecaries (pharmacists from the days of yore) like Antoine Peychaud (d. 1883) invented cocktails like the Sazerac to feature his bitters and their touted medicinal benefits.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the word cocktail specifically meant “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind – sugar, water, and bitters” (Columbian Repository May 13th 1806). Back then, if you waltzed up to a bar and asked the bartender to make you a “cocktail”, he would combine those and only those four basic elements together.
Then, little by little, drinking preferences developed into something more flamboyant, with colorful juices and tasty cordials. So that by the end of the 19th century, if you wanted a cocktail made simply with spirit, bitters, sugar and water, you had to ask for a cocktail in the “old-fashioned style”.
Thus the Old Fashioned Cocktail was born into an era when shelves were full of hundreds if not thousands of options for bitters, and bartenders were adding bitters to beverages for both their digestive properties and their ability to impart and balance flavors.
BITTERS DURING THE PROHIBITION
When Prohibition began in 1920, the cocktail industry collapsed overnight forcing American mixologists to change careers, work the underground world of speakeasies, or flee to other countries where they could still tend bar.
Bitters were allowed to be purchased as medicine from drug stores. However, that lifeline was short-lived, as the first part of the 20th century also saw a rapid expansion of the pharmaceutical industry, which bitters were not a part of. The U.S. government simultaneously began standardizing rules for production of medicinals. It became difficult for small producers of medicinal products to compete with larger and more established brands.
The double whammy of a shifting medical industry and the shuttering of the bar industry forced almost every bitters brand out of existence. The only two brands that managed to survive the 13 year slump were Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters. By the time the 18th amendment was repealed, the landscape of cocktail culture in America had changed, not to be resuscitated to anything resembling its former glory until the 1990’s.
After the prohibition, drinking culture had lost most of its refinement and began placing an emphasis on the potency of a drink rather than the flavor and nuance of it. By the 90’s, premium spirits brands were in their infancy so most cocktails were still made with low quality spirits and drowned in sweet and sour mix or cola.
In the early 90’s, cocktail godfather Dale DeGroff took the first steps to reignite the pre-prohibition cocktail culture by including classic cocktails made with fresh ingredients on his drinks menu at The Rainbow Room in New York City. Other bar operators began to follow in his footsteps leading to the opening of mixology establishments such as Milk and Honey in 1999 and Death and Co. in 2007.
As premium spirits brands and cocktail bars took their first steps into a renaissance of creativity and excellence, so too did the cocktail bitters industry. Gary Regan started the first bitters company since the end of prohibition in the mid-90’s producing his famous Regan’s Orange Bitters no.6, a much needed ingredient for classic cocktails.
By 2008 companies like Bittermens and Scrappy’s had begun producing large lines of high quality and creative cocktail bitters, introducing flavors like cardamom and mole to the market. This brought the bitters industry much closer to what it was before the prohibition but with an emphasis on flavor and creativity rather than medicine.
Benefits of bitters
The most well known use for herbal bitters is for their digestive benefits. Bitters begin to ease digestive discomfort as soon as receptors on the tongue taste bitter flavor. This simple act of tasting bitter flavor activates enzymes and the function of all digestive organs, ensuring that a full spectrum of digestive problems can be addressed.
The benefits of herbal bitters vary depending on the botanicals used to make them. Most plants that go into Bennett Bitters blends have multiple positive effects on the body and mind. The chamomile that is found in a bottle of Wild Hunt Bitters, for example, is known to both soothe nervous tension and relax the stomach muscles for an easier digestive process.
It is important to note that some modern bitters, while carrying that name, do not involve the use of any traditionally beneficial or bitter ingredients.
ALCOHOL CONTENT OF BITTERS
The ABV in a bottle of bitters generally ranges from around 40% to 45% but can be as low as 25% to as high as 60%. The ABV varies between brands and types of bitters.
Bitters have extremely potent flavors (imagine eating a whole jar of cinnamon!) so they are only used in dashes/droppers as flavoring agents.
Because the amount of bitters typically used in a cocktail is so small relative to the volume of the drink, the amount of actual alcohol that bitters add to a beverage is negligible.
However, there are those who will not use any traditional alcohol based bitters due to a history of problems with drinking. Consider this when serving a friend with such a history.
DO BITTERS GO BAD?
Bitters retain their flavor and medicinal potency indefinitely and will never “go bad.” This is due to the highly preservative nature of alcohol. That being said, it is generally recommended to finish a bottle of bitters within three years of opening to guarantee maximum freshness.