Before Prohibition, a cocktail wasn’t a cocktail without bitters. But for many years, bitters were forgotten and Angostura was about the only brand you could find, and even that bottle would’ve been covered in dust. Now bitters are back, thanks in large part to the revival of classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan.
What Are Bitters?
Bitters are a relatively small player in the overall content of a cocktail, yet just a few drops of bitters make a liquor concoction far more interesting, adding complexity and balance while drawing out the other flavors in the drink. Bitters are generally a concentrated high-proof alcohol base infused with herbs, roots, barks, spices and sometimes fruits. They began as a medicinal substance in Europe consumed by the glass, but became part of the cocktail menu in the early 19th century. Only a few dashes are needed in any drink, but variations of many cocktails can be made with a type of bitters.
Bitters For Your Home Bar
Today, a number of new labels and varieties are on the market, not to mention the array of house-made bitters that bartenders and enthusiasts are crafting themselves. We selected 5 quality brands that you can use to improve your cocktail making skills. Experiment with various types and don’t hesitate to combine different flavors of bitters in the same drink.
Made in Peru, this unique aromatic variation is made with a selection of Amazon barks, herbs, roots and flowers. While hard to find, it’s the only bitters for a Pisco Sour.
The ubiquitous staple of aromatic bitters, Angostura has produced its secret recipe since 1824. Packaged with an iconic paper label that doesn’t fit the bottle, these bitters have a pronounced tamarind and cinnamon flavor essential to a Manhattan. In 2008, Angostura added orange bitters to its product line that has a natural flavor and a complex depth.
A non-alcoholic variation, Fee Brothers makes an excellent old-fashion aromatic bitters, along with an assortment of flavors including cherry, lemon, grapefruit and whiskey barrel aged. Try the cherry bitters in place of the actual fruit in your next Old Fashioned.
Created in New Orleans in 1830, Peychaud’s has a light, slightly sweet anise flavor with a more floral taste than most. A key ingredient for the Sazerac and Vieux Carré.
Regans’ Orange Bitters No.6
During the 19th-century, a dried orange peel was often added to cocktails to lend vigor. Orange bitters were soon prepared alongside aromatic bitters, enhancing the crisp citrus bite with ingredients like cardamom and coriander. Nearly extinct until recently, orange bitters now have several makers, including Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 launched in 2005.
Photo by Judson Jones