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Cocktail Bitters 101 - A Beginner's Guide

Cocktail Bitters 101 - A Beginner's Guide

Fresh ingredients and unique cocktail products have never been more accessible. One of the staples of this market is cocktail bitters. These small bottles of flavoring agents are incredibly versatile and one of the most mysterious cocktail ingredients out there. What the heck are cocktail bitters, anyway?

What are bitters?

Bitters are alcohol-based flavoring agents commonly infused with botanicals and other aromatic ingredients. These include fruit peels, spices, herbs, dried flowers, bark, and roots, to name a few. Cocktail bitters are sold in small bottles and, due to their potency, only require a few drops to impart their unique flavor and add complexity to your craft cocktail.

The craft cocktail boom helped bring bitters back from near extinction. Bitters date back to the 1800s, where they were used to mix classic cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned, but were also commonly prescribed for medical purposes. Bitters were widely called upon to relieve digestive issues, headaches and to calm one's nerves. However, with medical advances and prohibition in the 1920s, bitters' use and production became non-existent. Only a few brands of bitters remained in production, even after prohibition ended.

Fortunately for us, the cocktail revival starting in the 2000s has revitalized classic bitters brands and launched many great bitters products.

Classic bitters brands:

Bitters were very common until the start of prohibition in the 1920s when many bitters brands ceased production; however, two classics are still available today.

Angostura Bitters – Made since the 1820s, Angostura Bitters are the oldest bitters still produced today. Angostura bitters are available in multiple flavors, with aromatic bitters being their most popular.

Peychaud's – Another classic bitters brand, the original Peychaud's bitters formula was created in the 1830s.

The newcomers:

There are dozens of excellent bitters brands on the market today – too many to name in this article – but we will highlight some of our favorites.

Regans' Orange Bitters – Created by cocktail author Gary Regan and based on a classic recipe from Charles H. Baker's 'The Gentleman's Companion.'

Fee Brothers – In addition to a large variety of bitters, Fee Brothers also offers botanical waters, brines, mixers, and other cocktail ingredients.

Scrappy's Bitters – Crafted in small batches in Seattle, WA, Scrappy's Bitters has been a go-to for craft cocktail enthusiasts for over ten years.

Other brands we love: Hella Bitters, Bittermens. Dr. Adam's Boker's Bitters

Flavors of bitters

Aromatic Bitters – The most common flavor of bitters. Aromatic Bitters feature a combination of spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, allspice, vanilla, and cardamom. With such a large variety of spices, the flavor profiles of Aromatic Bitters brands vary, so it is best to experiment to find your favorite.

Orange Bitters – Right up there with Aromatic Bitters in popularity, Orange Bitters are also one of the oldest bitters flavors dating back to the mid-1800s. Made from the dried peels of oranges, Orange Bitters can also vary in taste from brand to brand as they can feature additional spices and flavors.

Citrus Bitters – In addition to orange, other popular citrus-based bitters flavors include lime, grapefruit, and lemon. Citrus Bitters are versatile and provide a tartness to go along with bitterness, just as citrus-based mixers are called upon for many different cocktail recipes.

Fruit Bitters – Are you seeing a trend here? Fruit makes an excellent base for bitters flavors. Berries, cherries, peaches, cranberries, and plums are commonly used to provide a slight sweetness to cocktail bitters.

Spiced Bitters – Spices are commonly used in most bitters, but some bitters allow a single spice to take the lead. The most common spiced bitters are cardamom, followed by ginger and cinnamon. Chile Peppers or other spicy hot ingredients can also add a little heat.

Celery Bitters – Celery seeds are used to make celery-flavored bitters. Another classic bitters flavor over 100 years old, Celery Bitters, adds a hint of earthiness to cocktails like a Bloody Mary or Michelada.

Floral Bitters – Floral flavors are a prevalent craft cocktail trend that extends into bitters. Flowers such as hibiscus, jasmine, and chamomile impart their aromatic essence to cocktail bitter spices and pair well with gin or vodka.

Chocolate Bitters – Another popular cocktail trend is the use of chocolate when mixing craft cocktails. Chocolate bitters are made from cocoa and can feature notes of vanilla and coffee.

What bitters should I buy?

As noted above, there are many flavors of bitters. The specific taste also changes from brand to brand based on the particular blend of spices used to make them. Not all Orange Bitters will taste the same. Listed below are some of our personal favorite bitters flavors to use with different types of spirits; however, we recommend that you experiment and find your preferred bitters flavors for your favorite craft cocktails.
  • Whiskey: Aromatic, Orange, Chocolate
  • Gin: Orange, Citrus, Floral, Spiced
  • Vodka: Floral, Celery, Fruit
  • Tequila: Celery, Spiced, Chocolate
  • Rum: Chocolate, Aromatic, Floral, Orange

How do I use cocktail bitters?

Remember - cocktail bitters pack a lot of punch for being in such a small container, so you don't need much - just a few drops. We recommend experimenting on one of your go-to cocktails. Let's say an Old Fashioned, which typically calls for aromatic bitter. Mix it up and try chocolate or orange bitters. Take note of what you like and expand it from there. You can also try bitters in club soda to get a better feel for its unique flavor profile. Also, share with friends. I get excited when I see a new bitters brand or flavor I haven't tried before.

Last but not least - have fun with it. When it comes to cocktails and taste - you set the rules. Experiment and have fun.

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