Sip, Savor, and Mix: Everything You Need to Know About Bitters

  • By: BT Staff
  • Date: January 20, 2024
  • Time to read: 11 min.
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Are you ready to take your cocktail game to the next level? Look no further than bitters, the unsung hero of mixology. With a rich history dating back to its use as medicine, bitters have since become a staple in the world of cocktails, adding depth, complexity, and balance to every sip. This article will explore the different types of bitters, their history, and how to use them to elevate your cocktails to new heights. So, grab a glass and let’s get started!

What Are Bitters?

Bitters are alcoholic beverages typically made from a combination of botanical ingredients such as roots, bark, spices, and fruits steeped in alcohol. They are highly concentrated and have a bitter or bitter-sweet flavour profile. Bitters are a flavouring agent in cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages, and cooking, adding depth, balance, and complexity to the overall taste. Bitters can range from light and citrusy to bold and aromatic and are often used in small quantities, a few dashes at a time, to enhance the flavour profile of a drink. With a history dating back to its use as medicine, bitters have since become an essential ingredient in the world of mixology.

A Brief History of Bitters

Bitters have a rich history dating back to the early 19th century when they were originally used as a medicinal remedy for various ailments. During this time, bitters were made from a mixture of bitter herbs, roots, and barks believed to have medicinal (and mystical) properties.

Over time, bitters evolved from a medicinal remedy to a flavouring agent in cocktails. Their bitterness balanced out the sweetness of other ingredients and added depth and complexity to the flavour profile.

Some of the bitters we still use today can be traced back to the 1800s:

  • Angostura Bitters: Angostura Bitters was first developed in 1824 by Dr Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in Angostura, Venezuela. It quickly became a popular ingredient in cocktails and is now one of the most widely used bitters in the world.
  • Peychaud’s Bitters: Peychaud’s Bitters was created by Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a Creole apothecary in New Orleans, in the late 18th century. It was originally used as a medicinal remedy and later became a popular ingredient in cocktails, especially the Sazerac cocktail.
  • Fee Brothers Bitters: Fee Brothers was established in 1863 by the Fee brothers in Rochester, New York. They offer a range of bitters, including Orange Bitters, Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters, and Mint Bitters.
  • Orange Bitters: Orange bitters have a long history, with various brands dating back to the 19th century. They are made from a combination of bitter oranges, spices, and alcohol and add a citrusy flavour to cocktails.
  • Campari: Campari is a popular Italian bitter liqueur that Gaspare Campari first created in 1860. It is made from a secret blend of ingredients and is used in cocktails such as the Negroni and the Americano.

How Are Bitters Used Today?

Today, bitters continue to play a crucial role in mixology and are used in a wide range of cocktails, from classics like the Manhattan to contemporary creations. The use of bitters has grown beyond just cocktails, with some bartenders and chefs using bitters in non-alcoholic beverages and cooking to enhance the flavour profile of their creations.

And new types of bitters are still being created with many unique flavours, such as:

  • The Bitter Truth Bitters: The Bitter Truth is a German company established in 2006. They offer a range of bitters, including Celery Bitters, Creole Bitters, and Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters, named after famous 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas.
  • Scrappy’s Bitters: Scrappy’s is a Seattle-based company founded in 2008. They offer a range of bitters, including Lime Bitters, Cardamom Bitters, and Chocolate Bitters.
  • Dram Bitters: Dram is a craft bitters company founded in 2010. They offer a range of bitters, including Aromatic Bitters, Orange Bitters, and Spiced Cranberry Bitters.

What Are the Four Types of Bitters?

These are the four main types of bitters, each offering a unique flavour profile and versatility to cocktails.

  1. Aromatic Bitters: Aromatic bitters are the most widely used type of bitters, characterized by their complex blend of spices, herbs, and botanicals. They add depth and balance to cocktails and often have a strong, bold flavour profile.
  2. Citrus Bitters: Citrus bitters are made from citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, and limes. They add a bright and refreshing citrus flavour to cocktails and are often used to balance the sweetness of other ingredients.
  3. Herbal Bitters: Herbal bitters are made from a combination of herbs and botanicals such as gentian, angelica, and dandelion. They are used to add a bitter flavour to cocktails and are often used in small quantities, a few dashes at a time.
  4. Spiced Bitters: Spiced bitters are made from a combination of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. They add warmth and depth to cocktails and can be used in a wide range of cocktail styles, from classics to contemporary creations.

Here are some examples of each type you can find in stores:

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What Are the Most Common Types of Bitters?

The most common type of bitters is aromatic bitters. Aromatic bitters are the most widely used bitters, characterized by their complex blend of spices, herbs, and botanicals. They are used to add depth and balance to cocktails and often have a strong, bold flavour profile. Examples of popular aromatic bitters include Angostura Bitters and Peychaud’s Bitters.

How to Use Bitters in Cocktails

How to use cocktail bitters

Bitters are a staple ingredient in the cocktail world and add depth, balance, and complexity to drinks. However, it can be difficult for those new to using bitters to know how much to use and what spirits to pair with. Here are some tips on how to use bitters in cocktails.

Determining the Right Amount To Use in a Drink:

Bitters are potent, and a little goes a long way. A standard measurement is 2-3 dashes per drink, but the exact amount will depend on the type of bitters you’re using and the flavour profile of your drink. Start with a few dashes and gradually add more to taste, always keeping in mind that less is more.

How Much Is a Dash in Cocktails?

A “dash” in cocktail terms is a measurement unit used to describe a small, indefinite amount of liquid. A dash is typically considered to be equivalent to about 1/8 teaspoon, or approximately five drops. The exact amount of a dash will depend on the bartender’s pouring style and the size of the bottle’s dropper, but it is generally accepted to be a small, quick pour that is not precisely measured.

How Many Dashes of Bitters Are in a Typical Cocktail?

When making cocktails, one or two dashes are often used to add a subtle flavour, so the amount used can vary greatly depending on the desired outcome.

When Do You Add Bitters to a Cocktail?

Bitters are typically added early in the cocktail-making process, before other ingredients like juices, syrups, and garnishes. This is because bitters help balance the flavours of the other ingredients and create a harmonious taste in the final drink.

When making a cocktail, you can add the bitters directly to the shaker or mixing glass, along with the spirits and other mixers. This allows the bitters to be combined with the other ingredients and infused into the drink as it is stirred or shaken. Of course, for some drinks, like Whisky Sours you’ll sometimes see the bartender add a dash or two after the drink is poured for visual appeal.

It’s important to note that bitters are a potent ingredient, so it’s best to start with a small amount and adjust as needed. A general rule of thumb is to use 2-3 dashes of bitters per drink, but the exact amount will depend on the type of bitters used and the desired flavour profile of the cocktail.

Pairing Bitters with Different Spirits:

Different bitters pair well with different spirits, so it’s important to consider the flavours of both ingredients when creating a cocktail. For example, aromatic bitters like Angostura pair well with dark spirits like whiskey and rum, while citrus bitters like orange pair well with gin and vodka. Herbal and spiced bitters are versatile and can be used with a wide range of spirits, but they work particularly well with brown spirits like bourbon and brandy.

Experimenting with Bitters to Create Unique Flavours:

Bitters are great for experimenting with new flavours and creating unique cocktails. Try combining different types of bitters to create your signature blend, or use bitters to add a twist to classic drinks. For example, a few dashes of chilli bitters can add a spicy kick to a Margarita, while coffee bitters can add a touch of coffee flavour to an Old Fashioned.

In conclusion, bitters are essential in the cocktail world and can add depth, balance, and complexity to drinks. By determining the right amount, pairing bitters with different spirits, and experimenting with different flavours, you can create unique and delicious cocktails that showcase the versatility of bitters.

Common Questions About Bitters

There is a lot to know about bitters. Here are some common questions:

What Are Bitters Made From?

Bitters are made from a combination of botanical ingredients, such as herbs, spices, roots, and fruits. These ingredients are steeped in a spirit, such as alcohol or vinegar, to extract their flavours and aromas. The resulting mixture is then strained and bottled. The exact ingredients used will vary depending on the type of bitters being made.

How Many Bitters Should I Put in a Cocktail?

The amount of bitters you should use in a cocktail will depend on the type of bitters, the other ingredients in the drink, and your taste preferences. A general rule of thumb is to start with 2-3 dashes of bitters per drink and adjust as needed. Using bitters sparingly is important, as they are a potent ingredient.

What’s the Difference Between Aromatic Bitters and Citrus Bitters?

Aromatic bitters are characterized by their strong, herbal aroma and bitter flavour, while citrus bitters are made with citrus fruits, such as oranges or grapefruits, and are typically lighter and more citrusy in flavour. Aromatic bitters are often used in classic cocktails, while citrus bitters are often used to add brightness and freshness to cocktails.

Can Bitters Be Used in Non-alcoholic Drinks?

Yes, bitters can be used in non-alcoholic drinks. They often add depth and complexity to mocktails and other non-alcoholic beverages. Technically, bitters are alcohol, but in very small amounts, so you won’t get drunk off them easily.

What Can Be Used as a Substitute for Bitters in Non-alcoholic Drinks?

Bitters can be a flavorful addition to non-alcoholic drinks, but if you are looking for a non-alcoholic alternative, there are a few options to consider. Some popular options include:

  • Flavoured syrups such as grenadine, vanilla, or orange blossom
  • Fruit juices or purees, such as pomegranate, cranberry, or raspberry
  • Aromatic herbs, such as basil, mint, or rosemary
  • Spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, or clove These substitutes, can be used to add depth of flavour and balance to non-alcoholic drinks without the alcohol content of bitters. Experiment with different ingredients to find the combination that works best for you.

Can You Drink Bitters While Pregnant

Pregnant women should avoid consuming large amounts of bitters as they can contain high levels of alcohol and potentially harmful ingredients. Bitters are traditionally used in small amounts as a flavour enhancer in cocktails and other beverages, but consuming large amounts can pose a risk to the health of the mother and the baby.

If you are pregnant, avoiding bitters or consulting a healthcare provider before consuming any products containing them is best.

How Long Do Bitters Last?

Bitters can last for several years, but their flavour may deteriorate after a year or two. It’s important to store bitters in a cool, dark place to extend their shelf life. To preserve the flavour and potency of the bitters, it is important to keep the bottle tightly sealed and avoid exposing it to light and heat.

Can Cocktail Bitters Go Bad?

A: Yes, cocktail bitters like Angostura can go bad over time, just like any other food or drink product, though they can still be used after five years if stored properly. The high alcohol content helps to preserve the flavour and prevent spoilage, but the quality and flavour of the bitters can still deteriorate if not stored properly.

How Should You Store Cocktail Bitters?

To ensure the bitters remain fresh, store them in a cool, dark place and check the aroma and flavour periodically to determine if they are still good to use. Also, keep the bottle tightly sealed to prevent evaporation and oxidation.

Should Aromatic Bitters Be Refrigerated?

Aromatic bitters do not necessarily need to be refrigerated, but doing so can extend their shelf life and preserve their flavour. Bitters are alcohol-based and have a high alcohol content, which helps to preserve them and prevent spoilage. However, storing bitters in the refrigerator can slow the oxidation process and prevent the bitterness from fading over time.

How Do I Know Which Bitters To Use for a Specific Drink?

The best way to determine which bitters to use in a specific drink is to experiment and taste as you go. You can also consult cocktail books, websites, and bartending guides for recommendations and pairing suggestions.

Can Bitters Be Used in Cooking and Baking?

Yes, bitters can be used in cooking and baking. They often add depth and complexity to sauces, marinades, and baked goods.

Do Cocktail Bitters Contain Alcohol, and Can You Get Drunk From Them?

Yes, cocktail bitters contain alcohol, but in very small amounts. They are typically added to cocktails in dashes or drops, so the amount of alcohol consumed is minimal. Yes, you might be able to get a buzz from drinking them straight, but you’d have a drink a lot and would probably become ill.

Do You Need To Be 21 in the US To Buy Bitters?

Bitters in the US are classified as non-alcoholic, allowing minors to purchase them, and they can be found in supermarkets and speciality stores.

Conclusion

This article explored the different types of bitters, their history, and how to use them in making cocktails.

In conclusion, bitters are a versatile and flavorful addition to many drinks and dishes. They have a rich history, dating back to ancient times, and are popular today. Bitters have various flavours, including herb and spice, citrus, aromatic, and flavoured. They are commonly used in cocktails, cooking, and as digestive aid. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can make your own bitters at home with simple ingredients and equipment.

Bitters add depth and complexity to cocktails and can elevate the flavours in your favourite recipes. Whether a seasoned bartender or a home cook, bitters are a must-have ingredient in your pantry. They are easy to use, and a little goes a long way.

We recommend trying different brands and types of bitters to find your favourite. Some popular brands, including Angostura, Fee Brothers, and Bittermens—experiment with using bitters in new and creative ways to discover all the delicious possibilities they offer.

So, grab a glass and start experimenting!