All About Bitters: The Bar Cart Essential That Transforms Cocktails in a Dash

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Micah Marie Morton

Imagine preparing dinner without any herbs or spices (don’t worry, this is purely theoretical): No matter how perfectly cooked your ingredients are—even if they contain robust flavors on their own—the dish would still be missing…something.

The world of cocktails has a similarly essential ingredient: bitters. A few drops of these potent tinctures can take a cocktail from average to delightfully complex, adding dimension and balance to the drink. Bonus: You can deploy them to soothe an upset stomach (more on that in a minute).

Bitters makers these days have been on a tear, producing flavors such as barbecue, fig, and sriracha—and reverse-engineering recipes lost to history. This expansion, however, has rendered the category somewhat ambiguous and prone to misclassification. So before you mix that new-wave Manhattan, it’s best to brush up on your bitters knowledge.

So what are bitters exactly?

Bitters are flavor extracts made by infusing barks, flowers, roots, berries, citrus peels, and other botanical bits and bobs into a liquid. Think of them as cocktail seasoning, derived from plants and doled out from small bottles in dashes or by a dropper. The liquid base for cocktail bitters is typically a neutral alcohol—the high alcohol content helps extract flavor during the infusion process. But bitters can be made without a boozy base. DRAM Apothecary’s alcohol-free bitters employ a base of glycerin, a compound founder and co-owner Shae Whitney says helps “makes flavors taste more pungent and last longer.”

While the flavor profiles and aromas are concentrated—you get a lot in every drop—not all cocktail bitters actually have a predominantly bitter flavor. It’s a spectrum, Whitney says, with some varieties landing on the sweeter end and others full-tilt bitter. The differences are a result of the ingredients selected. Most brands keep their recipes closely guarded, but may include gentian root, cascarilla herb, wormwood, cinchona bark (also the source of quinine, the compound known for giving tonic water its signature bite), and other astringent elements. The softer edges come from ingredients like orange peel, jasmine flower, and other herbage.

Where did bitters come from?

Over their long history, bitters have served as a preservative as well as an herbal medicinal tonic for an array of ailments. The category has since split into a few categories, like cocktail bitters and digestive bitters. This latter group highlights ingredients meant to ease stomach discomfort, while cocktail bitters are engineered to enhance the taste of a drink.

According to Mark Bitterman, author of the 2015 book Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari and owner of The Meadow, cocktail bitters had their heyday in the 19th century, before falling out of fashion due to government regulation. Prohibition was the final straw for all but Trinidad-based Angostura, one of the oldest bitters companies still in production today.

What do bitters do to a drink?

“Think of them like a liquid spice cabinet,” says Whitney. “They add depth [to a cocktail] and can tie different liquors and liqueurs together really nicely.” If you’re ever sipping a drink and think it could use a boost, cocktail bitters can add that missing element.

Bitters are a classic garnish, particularly for Amaretto Sours and other foam-topped egg white cocktails.

What about amari?

Amaro means “bitter” in Italian. Amari (the plural form) are technically a type of bitters. “They’re both a bouquet of botanics incorporated into a spirit,” says partner of Brooklyn’s Jupiter Disco (and Epicurious contributor) Al Sotack. But amari are meant to be enjoyed as a full pour or used as a mixer, and they usually have a lower ABV than traditional cocktail bitters. Campari, Fernet Branca, Pimm’s No. 1, and Cynar are all amari. (You may see this category referred to as “bitter liqueurs.”)

You could say bitters are an extra-potent type of amaro, since historically amaro came first. At any rate, Bitterman suggests an easy way to tell them apart: “If it’s in a large bottle, it’s amaro. If it’s in a little bottle, it’s bitters.”

Bitters by category:

With hundreds of types of bitters and so many ingredients that can make up each one, it’s difficult to lump this cocktail ingredient into categories, but here are some loose guidelines:

Aromatic bitters: This category of bitters, which includes the granddaddy of them all, Angostura bitters, is the most ubiquitous. Aromatic bitters “balance a bunch of different types of botanicals to give you a cohesive whole, so there’s no dominant flavor,” Bitterman says. But you can expect them to impart some cozy notes of baking spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, or clove.

Citrus bitters: Orange is the most commonly used one here, but name a citrus fruit (grapefruit, Meyer lemon, yuzu), and there’s a bottle of bitters out there based around it.

Herbal bitters: These have a dominant herbal note to them, whether it’s tarragon, thyme, lavender, mint, or virtually any other herb you can imagine.

Spice bitters: Spice bitters are generally warming and woodsy. You can expect them to keep the spice flavor at the forefront, whether that’s a single spice such as coriander or a mix such as the cinnamon and allspice in Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters.

Nut bitters: Walnut, pecan, pistachio…you get it.

Wild cards: You may also spot chocolate bitters (usually a variation of aromatic bitters, but it probably won’t be labeled as such, made from cacao), coffee bitters, and other types that don’t fit neatly into the above.

Roger Kamholz’s Angostura Fizz uses a full ounce of aromatic bitters.

How to use bitters:

There are some classic cocktail recipes in which bitters—and even a specific type of bitters—are considered irreplaceable, like Angostura in an old-fashioned and Peychaud’s in a Sazerac cocktail. But you should feel free to play around.

Whitney says there’s a common misconception that bitters are only for Manhattans and old-fashioneds, but she deploys them in any cocktail she thinks needs a little oomph, pairing DRAM’s aromatic bitters with tequila in a twist on a margarita, and adding citrus bitters to round out a simple vodka soda.

Just like any other ingredient, it’s important to consider all the other flavors in a cocktail when selecting bitters. Recipe developers will usually include the specific bitters they used to create a recipe, down to the brand, because one company’s celery bitters aren’t the same as another’s. And while you can certainly swap out one bottling for another, your finished drink won’t taste exactly as intended. Think about what would happen if you swapped the vanilla extract for almond extract in a pumpkin pie, or the cinnamon for clove—swapping out the bitters is no different.

Recipes will also indicate whether the bitters should be mixed in or reserved to garnish the drink. Mixing in will disperse the bitters throughout; dashing on top will give your drink a blast of concentrated aroma upon first sip.

And then there are the rule-breakers: Drinks where the bitters are not just an accent but a whole personality, like Anthony Brocatto’s Sazeraquiri. Built to highlight Peychaud’s bitters, it calls for a full ounce of the rosy liquid.

Make Lemon, Lime, and Bitters your new go-to spirit-free cocktail.

Bitters can bring that extra something to nonalcoholic drinks too, including the ever-reliable hangover remedy, bitters and club soda. (Note that if you’re making a drink for someone who abstains from alcoholic beverages, you should opt for a spirit-free brand.)

Want to take bitters out of the bar cart? Whitney often brings bitters into the kitchen when a dish could use a little dynamism. Try adding aromatic bitters to hollandaise, scrambled eggs, or whipped cream; or use them to deepen the flavor of a stew.

Where should I shop for bitters?

You can buy all sorts of bitters on Amazon and at online shops like The Meadow, Boisson, and ReserveBar; but also at well-stocked wine shops, specialty food stores (beloved Kalustyan’s has a broad selection), and at least one bar, the bitters-focused Amor y Amargo in New York. It’s also pretty easy to find a few bottles at regular grocery stores: If your local supermarket carries spirits, look there, if not, look in the carbonated drink section or next to the canned juices. (If you’re very ambitious, you could even make your own bitters.)

For a good starting lineup to keep in your home bar, Whitney and Sotack both recommend beginning with Angostura and Peychaud’s. “It’s like the light side and the dark side of the Force: Angostura has this bigger, bassier flavor, and Peychaud is much brighter,” Sotack says. “If you have those two things, you cover a lot of ground in terms of cocktail-making.”

Your third pick should either be another aromatic bitters like the Bitter Truth’s, or citrus bitters (Regans’ Orange Bitters are popular and easy to find), which some people enjoy in a classic martini recipe.

The Bitter Truth Cocktail Essentials Kit

$20.00, Amazon

After that “the sky’s the limit,” according to Sotack. “Grab things based on whims and your impulses that day. It’s easier to experiment by switching up bitters than it is by switching up other ingredients, because most other ingredients require some rejiggering of the formula of the cocktail. With bitters, you add a very small amount to a much bigger volume,” he says. Translation: the impact is noticeable without affecting the sweetness or tartness of an alcoholic drink, or significantly affecting its strength.

Branch out into today’s vast, diverse world of bitters to start customizing your happy hour. Whitney likes to keep “an oddball savory, like a lavender or a fennel or something” in her personal collection. Pick up something that appeals to you, then add a dash or two to your favorite cocktail and notice how the drink changes.

Bitters brands to know:

Angostura: The super-secret recipe, which dates to 1824, doesn’t actually contain Angostura bark, but there are a lot of other ingredients in it and supposedly, only five people know them all. Angostura, or Ango for short, is the go-to for a Manhattan and frequently seen dotting the froth on a Pisco sour and other egg white cocktails.

Angostura Bitters

$9.00, Kroger

Peychaud’s: Another household name that’s almost as old as Angostura, this gentian root-based bitters tastes of anise, with soft minty, fruity notes. It’s indispensable in a classic New Orleans Sazerac.

Peychaud's Bitters

$12.00, Amazon

Regans’ Orange No. 6: There are many distinct varieties of orange bitters in the world, but this one is a favorite among pros. Famed bartender Gary Regan developed his zesty bitters in the 1990s, based on a recipe from the 1939 book The Gentleman’s Companion. Use it in your favorite whiskey drink or add a few dashes to personalize your martini or wake up a gin and tonic.

Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6

$14.00, Amazon

Fee Brothers: The company has been around since the 1860s and makes a range of bitters, including cardamom, celery, rhubarb, and peach. Fee Brothers’ base ingredient is also glycerin rather than neutral ethanol, though the bitters are not entirely alcohol free.

Fee Brothers Complete Cocktail Bitters Set

$100.00, Amazon

In the past two decades a number of companies have burst onto the scene, producing bitters in the pre-Prohibition tradition, including the Bitter Truth from Germany, UK-based Bob’s Bitters, Bittermens, and Bittercube of Milwaukee. Spirit-free options include All the Bitter from Northern California and the aforementioned DRAM Apothecary from Colorado.

Do bitters ever go bad?

Not likely. Keep them in your liquor cabinet out of direct sunlight and they’ll be fine for at least five years, though Bitterman says some last much longer.

Originally Appeared on Epicurious

Pour another cocktail…