The first mention of a cocktail came in the early 1800s, which was a blend of four ingredients: liquor, sugar, water, and bitters.
Today, bitters are used in sweet and tangy cocktails added to balance out the drink, making them more complex and adding to the flavor profile. Back when bitters were first discovered, they were thought of as healthy or as medicine. Many people believed that bitters would cure everything from indigestion to malaria because of its unpleasant taste. Unpleasant taste equaled something healthy.
During prohibition, many bitters companies closed their doors and it seemed as if the ingredient was nearly lost forever. As the craft cocktail market has grown, bitters have come back from the depths of history to fuel bartender creativity.
Bitters are made from infusing bark, herbs, fruit peels, roots, botanicals, and other ingredients into a flavorless alcohol base. Just like salt is added to cooking for extra flavor, bitters are added to cocktails to enhance the taste.
The flavor of bitters can vary wildly depending on the style, ingredients, and marker. Some brands have their own specific flavor while others are more experimental. One of the most popular bitters, Angostura, has a spicy profile with notes of cinnamon. Other companies have bitters with notes of coffee and cacao like Santa Teresa.
Cocktail bitters, with their concentrated flavor, are ideal finishers for even the simplest drinks. Even a whiskey on the rocks can be improved with a dash or two of transforming flavor. Utilizing the many different types of bitters can help create bold and complex cocktails that stan above the competition.
Here are a few of our favorite bitter’s brands!
Founded by Dr. Johann Siegert in 1824, the aromatic bitters were first produced as a medical tincture to help with stomach issues. In 1870, Siegert’s three sons migrated to Trinidad and established the bitters as an essential ingredient in cocktails and food. With four bitters variations: Aromatic Bitters, Orange Bitters, Cocoa Bitters, and Amaro Di Angostura, Angostura is a staple for bartenders and professional and home cooks.
The award-winning Rum, founded in 1796 and only recently launched their first collection of bitters to enhance the walnut, coffee, cacao notes of their rum. The Cantinero Coffee Bitters are made from cacao, cracked coffee beans, sarsaparilla, and molasses.
Known for giving standard bitters a radical twist, each batch made is mixed, infused, and dispensed by hand in limited quantities. With seven variations: Chesapeake Bay, Mexican Mole, Jamaican Jerk, Curry, Memphis Barbeque, Moroccan, and Thai, these bitters elevate classic cocktails. Founder Bill York uses his knowledge of world cuisine and mixology to bring world flavors into bottles.
The Bitter Truth bitters have received multiple awards for their traditionally made bitters that only use the best quality and natural ingredients. With over 10 variations including lemon, celery, tonic, peach, and more, The Bitter Truth bitters were designed to recreate drinks that could no longer be mixed true because one crucial ingredient was missing. The German brand founded by bartenders, Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck, came up with the idea of producing and distributing cocktail bitters due to the lack thereof in Germany.
Offering seven flavor profiles, Bitter Queens bitters each have a full-bodied personality. Sassy Sally emits root beer aromas with cinnamon, citrus, and mint. Maire Laveau evokes a savory tobacco flavor with notes of smoked tea, clove, and vanilla. Norcal Nancy is a mix of fresh aromas, eucalyptus, sage, California laurel, and tree bark. Opulent Odessa is richly perfumed with exotic citrus oils and mingled with lemon, chamomile, and frankincense. Joker Judy has toasty notes of coffee, vanilla, and cacao like a chocolate-walnut cookie. Bangkok Betty is a blend of citrusy Thai flavors like kaffir lime, lemongrass, chilies, and ginger. Lastly, Shanghai Shirley kicks the senses with spicy pepper, star anise, and warm spice.
If you want to mix with bitters, these cocktails are worth the taste.
- 3/4 oz. Angostura 5 yr old
- 1 oz. Amaro di Angostura
- 1 small egg white
- 1/2 oz. lime juice
- 1/2 oz. simple syrup
- 2 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters
Preparation: Add all ingredients into a mixing tin and shake vigorously without ice to emulsify egg. Add ice and shake vigorously again, double strain into a pre-chilled coupe. Garnish with a bay leaf or freshly grated nutmeg.
- 1 1/2 oz. Amaro di Angostura
- 1 oz. London dry gin
- 1/2 oz. sweet vermouth
- 2 drops Angostura orange bitters
Preparation: Add all ingredients into a mixing glass, add ice, stir, and strain over ice into an Old-Fashioned glass. Garnish with an orange twist.