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Basic Bitters Guide for Cocktails

Karen Frazier
Bitters lined up on a bar

Bitters, also known as cocktail bitters, are a common ingredient used in a number of classic and modern mixed drinks. They are made from a high-proof, neutral spirit infused with various aromatics. Even a few drops or dashes of bitters can make a mundane cocktail into something truly special.

What Are Bitters?

Cocktail bitters start as a high-proof, neutral, flavorless spirit (such as 100-proof vodka or everclear). They are then infused with a bittering agent and different aromatic botanical ingredients, such as herbs, spices, seeds, barks, citrus peel, and other flavors. Some, such as Peychaud's bitters or Angostura bitters, use the roots from gentian, a type of aromatic flowering plant, as the bittering agent. They also are infused with additional botanicals to create a unique flavor and aroma profile. Infusion usually takes several days, and then the bitters are strained and mixed with other ingredients such as coloring or sweetener. Finally, they are diluted with water until they're about 44% alcohol.

What Do Bitters Taste Like?

As the name suggests, bitters are extremely bitter thanks to the infusion with a bittering agent. The bitter flavor is believed to help with digestion, but chances are you don't want to drink them straight because they are quite bitter, which is why you add them to cocktails in drops or dashes instead of by the ounce or shot. If you're looking for the digestive benefits without consuming a cocktail, you can add a few dashes of bitters to a glass of club soda, which will also allow you to enjoy the pure aromatic flavors of the ingredient. Bitters also impart earthy or woody flavors, as well as the flavors and aromas of other ingredients used to spice them. In cocktails, bitters don't add a noticeable bitterness unless you use a lot. Instead, they add heady aromas and depth to the cocktails that contain them. Even a few dashes can completely change a cocktail for the better, which is why they are such a popular cocktail ingredient.

Different Types of Bitters

While the two most well-known types of bitters are Peychaud's and Angostura, there are a number of speciality flavors of bitters that you can use in various cocktails in place of traditional bitters that impart lovely aromatics to your drink. You'll find a dizzying array of flavored bitters at your local cocktail ingredients shop with a wide range of aromatics. When you're experimenting with making cocktails, you can use a 1:1 replacement in the recipe with any type of bitters you'd like to try. And even though cocktails usually only contain a few dashes of bitters, you'll be surprised and just how much changing a few drops in a drink can completely change the cocktail's character.

Peychaud's Bitters

Peychaud's bitters are made in New Orleans. They are infused with gentian root and other aromatics including aniseed (licorice), saffron, and citrus. The bitters have a vivid red color and a powerful, pleasant aroma, and they are the bitters of choice for classic cocktails such as the Sazerac and the Vieux Carré.

Angostura Bitters

Used in classic cocktails such as the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Rob Roy, Angostura bitters come from Trinidad and Tobago. There is a common misconception that Angostura bitters contain angostura bark and that is how they get their name, but it is untrue. Angostura bitters contain no angostura bark; instead, they were created in the town of Angostura, which is how they were named. Botanicals used include gentian root and more than 40 other ingredients that are a closely guarded secret. Flavors include cloves, cinnamon, and other spices with bitter and woody notes as well.

Other Bitters Flavors

While Peychaud's and Angostura bitters are the big players on the bitters market, in recent years a number of specialty flavored bitters have been produced that allow you to create interesting twists on cocktail classics. Some flavors of bitters you'll find include the following:

  • Orange
  • Grapefruit
  • Cardamom
  • Lemon
  • Lime
  • Cinnamon
  • Mole
  • Vanilla
  • Celery
  • Chocolate
  • Rhubarb
  • Mint
  • Cherry
  • Cranberry
  • Peach
  • Ginger
  • Coffee

How to Make Bitters

You can create your own homemade bitters, which is an interesting way to play with flavors and aromas in cocktails. You'll need a blend of botanical aromatics (or a single aromatic), a bittering agent, and a high-proof neutral spirit (you'll want it to be at least 100 proof, so you can try something such as a 100-proof vodka or even everclear). You may also want to sweeten them slightly by adding a sweetener such as honey or simple syrup. You can follow this simple recipe using your own botanical blend to make your own bitters.

A selection of herbs used to produce the custom bitters

Ingredients/Supplies

  • 2 2-inch strips of citrus peel (no white part, or pith)
  • 1 tablespoon gentian root or another bittering agent
  • 3 tablespoons whole spices, lightly crushed or chopped, fresh herbs (consider cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, star anise, vanilla beans, or similar ingredients)
  • 2 cups 100-proof vodka
  • One small, clean mason jar and lid for each botanical agent and 1 jar for the bittering agent
  • Cheesecloth
  • ¼ cup simple syrup
  • 1 to 2 ounce dropper bottles (dark color works best)
  • Small funnel
  • Labels
  • Sharpie

Instructions

  1. Place each botanical ingredients and the bittering ingredients in separate clean jars.
  2. Cover each with an equal amount of vodka.
  3. Put the lid on and shake well. Place in a cool, dark space.
  4. Shake the jar each day, leaving them for 5 days.
  5. On day five, strain the jar with the bittering agent, reserving the liquid and discarding the solids. Clean the jar, and return the liquid to the jar. Cover and return it to the cool, dark place with your other jars.
  6. Leave all jars for another five days, shaking the jars that still contain aromatics daily to mix.
  7. On day 10, strain all the other jars through a double layer of cheesecloth, keeping the liquid and discarding the solids. You may want to strain them a few times each to ensure all solids are removed.
  8. Now it's time to play. Combine your bitters a few ounces at a time - using any ratio you deem appropriate. You can test your bitters by adding a dash or two to four ounces of club soda and tasting them. Once you're satisfied with the balance, stir in the simple syrup.
  9. Strain the blend into the dropper jars using the small funnel. Label.
  10. Store in a cool, dark location for up to five years.

Some Botanicals to Try in Homemade Bitters

You can use any botanicals you wish in your homemade bitters. Some to try include:

  • Habanero pepper
  • Vanilla beans
  • Cardamom pods
  • Citrus peels
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Tarragon
  • Star anise
  • Coffee beans
  • Cacao nibs
  • Edible flowers
  • Ginger
  • Turmeric
  • Dried fruit
  • Cloves
  • Allspice
  • Fennel seed

How to Add Bitters to a Cocktail

Bitters won't make your cocktail bitter unless you add a lot. Instead, they add interesting aromatics and pull the cocktail together to make it more composed and flavorful. One easy way to discover how bitters affect a cocktail is to make two old fashioned cocktails - one made with bitters and one without it. By tasting each of these, you can easily see how bitters affect the flavor of a cocktail.

Most cocktail recipes tell you how to add the bitters, but you can add them to any cocktail you wish. Just add a dash or two and stir the cocktail unless otherwise indicated in the recipe. Typically, recipes call for 2 to 3 dashes, or if you're using a dropper, about 7 to 8 drops per dash.

Bartender adds bitter to summer cocktail

Cocktails That Use Bitters

One simple way to begin creating your own cocktails is to use a different flavor of bitters in a classic cocktail that already contains them. Some cocktails that use bitters and some simple substitutions are listed below.

  • Replace Angostura bitters in an old fashioned with cardamom bitters or replace the whiskey with a good reposado tequila and the bitters with a dash of mole bitters.
  • Add a dash or two of ginger bitters to a classic vodka martini
  • Replace Peychaud's bitters with orange bitters in a Sazerac.
  • Replace the Angostura bitters in a Manhattan with grapefruit bitters.
  • Replace the Angostura bitters in a Champagne cocktail with lemon, cinnamon, or nutmeg bitters.

Simple Cocktail With Bitters Recipe

This simple cocktail combines cardamom bitters with classic tiki drink ingredients for a delicious and aromatic cocktail.

Ingredients

  • ¾ ounces freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ¾ ounces simple syrup
  • 2 dashes cardamom bitters
  • 1½ ounces Malibu rum
  • 1½ ounces RumChata
  • Ice
  • Nutmeg and grated lime zest for garnish

Instructions

  1. In a cocktail shaker, combine the lime juice, simple syrup, cardamom bitters, Malibu rum, and RumChata.
  2. Add ice and shake to chill.
  3. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.
  4. Garnish with a sprinkling of nutmeg and lime zest.

Bitters Add Aromatics to Cocktails

Using bitters is a great way to add aromatics and a little something extra to your cocktails. With an array of flavors, the possibilities for creative craft cocktail making are endless.

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Basic Bitters Guide for Cocktails