What Are Bitters? Complete Guide On How To Use Them & Why

A person dropping some bitters into a cocktailTable of Contents:

Bitters refer to any type of liquor created using plant and natural herb flavors. By liquefying the natural herbs and adding them to alcoholic drinks, bitters create a more complete and well-balanced flavor profile.

You might have noticed that these little magic potion bottles are essential in many favorites, from Manhattans to Planter’s Punch. But are they mainly used to enhance the taste of world-famous cocktails? Read on to learn more about bitters, their different types, and the role they play in the art of mixology, medicine, and cooking.

A Brief History of Bitters

Before being a staple ingredient in cocktails, bitters were first created and used to aid in human digestion problems. In 1824, a German physician in Venezuela was trying to find a remedy for stomach maladies and malaria. After conducting several tests and research, he began making Angostura bitters. 

This first type of bitter was named after the town, Angostura in Venezuela. Later on, when people became more oriented with cocktails, bitters were already used in every bar in the city.

What are Bitters Made of?

Various aromatic herbs with mortar and pestle

Cocktail bitters are made from botanical ingredients such as aromatic herbs, bark roots, cascarilla, cassia, gentian, orange peel, and cinchona bark. Usually, the production of bitters includes water and alcohol wherein the latter acts as a solvent for the ingredients. Meanwhile, the alcohol strengthens the flavor of the ingredients even more.

What Do Bitters Taste Like?

The taste you get from your bitters would be dependent on the ingredients you use in creating them. You can find different types of bitters flavors like cinnamon, clove, cherry, coffee, chocolate, and others. You can even find some flavors of bitters that are a bit sweet but with some fruity notes.

Why are they Called Bitters? 

Bitters are called “bitters” because of their flavor profile. Although, it does not necessarily mean that they taste bitter. The herbs and barks used to give off that strong and sharp taste due to their tannin levels. Because of this, bitters are usually added in cocktails with sweet and sour hints to balance the flavors. 

Do Bitters Have Alcohol in them?

A bottle of cocktail bitter usually contains 35-45% alcohol. But since this ingredient is used by droplets or dashes, the ABV content is very minimal and is not often traced in the drink. Thus, bitters are marketed as non-alcoholic.

What are Bitters Used for?

Stomach ache

In ancient times and up till the 18th century, people used bitters like natural herbs to cure sicknesses like stomach maladies and sea sicknesses. Depending on their composition, physicians of the olden days could use them to deal with infirmities.

Nowadays, bitters are used mostly in alcoholic drinks. Some of the best mixologists and bartenders around the world use bitters to give a certain, different kind of taste to alcoholic drinks, especially cocktails. Bitters do not necessarily exist to make cocktails taste more bitter than they normally are, but rather to give a different side to a drink's taste.

Do Bitters Ever Go Bad?

Bitters do not have an expiration date or a time frame wherein it is not safe to consume anymore. As long as you keep it out of light and store it in a dark cool place, it will last for years depending on how often you use one. However, it is suggested to use this ingredient within 5 years upon purchase.

Why Use Bitters?

Many people wonder, "Why use bitters at all? Why not another flavor with a different composition?" Here are the many reasons why you should treat bitters as an essential ingredient in your bar.

1. Aids in digestion and absorption of nutrients

Human digestive system

As mentioned earlier, bitters are essentially herbs too. Depending on the composition of the leaves, roots, barks, and fruits used to make them, bitters can help treat illnesses such as stomach trouble and seasickness. They also help with indigestion.

Another health benefit that bitters can offer is the faster absorption of nutrients in our body. Since it increases digestive secretions, the liver can quickly take in the good stuff from the food we consume and detox our body as well.

There are even parts of the world where bitters are used to increase libido, treat sexual infertility, and malaria.

2. Boost the immune system

Happy and healthy women biking together

Some ingredients in bitters contain anti-inflammatory properties such as burdock root. People who consume this ingredient together with ginger and turmeric show a boost in their immune system. It can also protect the body from autoimmune diseases given the antioxidant effects of bitters.

3. Control sugar and appetite

According to some studies, bitters can aid in controlling sugar cravings and overeating. The medicinal properties of bitters can counter the brain receptors to keep you away from consuming sweets. Furthermore, the intake of bitter foods releases PYY and GLP-1 hormones that help suppress appetite.

4. Give cocktails their complex taste

A woman sipping her cocktail

Many people are okay with drinking cocktails as they are, but others want more. Bitters are that twist and edge that bring a sense of complexity to your drinks.

This doesn’t mean that if you add bitters to the glass, you'll get a bitter or very strong taste. Bitters are like salt in baking. You cannot really taste its “bitter” flavor, but it elevates your cocktail to a whole new level. 

Considered as an essential ingredient, bitters accentuate the flavors of the cocktail by allowing the naturally sweet, tangy, and sour tastes to come out.

Some cocktail drinks cannot taste proper without some good bitters to back them up. The Manhattan, the Sazerac, and the Old Fashioned are just a few examples of cocktails that won't taste as good without bitters in them.

5. Enhance the drink’s aroma

Two Bartenders Experimenting with Creating Cocktails

Bitters are not meant to be used as flavorings in cocktails alone. It actually smells like “Christmas” because of the bright and zesty aromas it brings. Because of this, you can use a few drops on top of your cocktails for a richer smell.

6. Applications in cooking

A bottle of bitter with strawberries

If you think that bitters are only used in cocktails, you’re wrong. Just like what it does to a cocktail, using bitters in any dish can also elevate the taste and aroma of any savory or sweet food. You can use it to marinate steaks, as a salad dressing, and even as simple syrups.

Types of Bitters

Although cocktail bitters taste relatively strong, there are still various flavors to choose from that can elevate your beverages to a whole new level. Here are the common types of bitters that are differentiated based on the ingredients used. 

  • Orange / Citrus Bitters

Orange cocktail with orange peels

Orange bitters are made from peels of Seville oranges, cardamom, caraway seed, coriander, anise, and burnt sugar. This type of cocktail bitters gives off the traditional marmalade scent with hints of bitter and sweet taste from the orange peel and alcohol combination. 

  • Aromatic Bitters

A bundle of peppermint with bottles

Based on its name, aromatic bitters are made from botanical ingredients that are known to exude different smells when crushed or mixed. Examples of aromatics used are cinnamon, mint, peppermint, hibiscus, lavender, valerian, lemongrass, and sage.

  • Nut Bitters

Chocolate bars and coffee granules

Nut bitters are relatively new to the market. But since mixologists and bartenders are quite experimental behind the bar, they came up with nut-flavored bitters that are made from coffee and chocolates.

  • Digestive Bitters

Medicinal plants on a wooden board

Digestive bitters function to maintain a healthy gut. These are made from the infusion of different medicinal plants and herbs such as gentian root, goldenseal, burdock, dandelion, and angelica. The bitters work by stimulating digestive juices, bile, and enzymes to break down food naturally and easily. 

  • Natural Bitters

In the absence of preservatives and GMO, natural bitters exist. These are made from organic ingredients that are usually sourced in local farms. Examples of these are El Guapo, Urban Moonshine, and Scrappy’s.

  • Cocktail Bitters

Now, bitters are commonly used to flavor cocktails. Because of its strong taste, it can balance out the sweet and sour notes of any beverage. Cocktail bitters are added in the form of drops or splashes in the drinks.

How to Use Bitters

The secret is to start slow. Add one to two drops, stir, and taste. The process is mostly trial and error, depending on your preference. If you dash, be very careful not to make a splash, especially if the bottle is almost empty. Your best bet is to use a dropper.

What Kind of Drinks Do You Put Bitters in?

Any type of drink can taste even better when you add some drops of bitters. It does not only limit itself to cocktails but even non-alcoholic drinks as well.

  • Sodas and Tonics

Two glasses of soda water with lemon wedges

Soda water and tonics are refreshing on their own. Since soda water is quite plain, this is the best drink to experiment with your bitters. You can fully taste the zesty or strong hints of herbs and roots when you incorporate bitters into soda water. 

To make it more interesting, you can squeeze some lemon or lime into the soda water and bitter combo for a citrusy and complex taste.

  • Popular Cocktails

The classic Manhattan, Martini, Old Fashioned, Negroni, and Sazerac all taste exceptionally good because of a few dashes of bitters added to them. Since cocktails are usually on the sweet or sour side, the strong flavor of bitters balances out the overwhelming taste of the drink.

Top Cocktail Bitter Brands

Bitters were used in cocktails back in the day until they weren't. But today, they've made a comeback, and many brands have created and still create solid bitters that can be used to give cocktails that wonderful edge. Some of the best cocktail bitters include:

1. Angostura Aromatic Bitters

Angostura Aromatic Bitters
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One of the most well-known cocktail bitters on the market, Angostura bitters got its name from Angostura, a place in Venezuela (now known as Ciudad Bolívar). The German doctor, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, created the recipe for these herbs. His original intent was to make an herb that could cure many illnesses, but he ended up producing an invaluable commodity for today's cocktails.

Today, Angostura bitters are made in Trinidad and find their use in Metropolitan and Old Fashioned cocktails. Pour these aromatic bitters into your rocks glass and don’t forget the last touch: the ice sphere.

2. Fee Brothers Cocktail Bitters

Fee Brothers Cocktail Bitters
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Since its first creation in Rochester in the 1950s, the Fee Brothers Bitters has grown to become one of the most diverse lines of bitters. It features flavors like mint, orange, peach, lemon, old fashion aromatic, and grapefruit for different types of cocktails. 

We recommend their Fee Brothers Aztec chocolate bitter to complement coffee cocktails like White Russian. Their celery bitters, on the other hand, work well with Bloody Mary recipes.

3. Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6

Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6
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Created in the 1990s, Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6 was famed by Gary Regan. He based the recipe on a 1939 book, The Gentleman’s Companion. There are lots of versatile flavors in this bitters brand like caraway, orange peel, and coriander.

4. Bar Keep Cocktail Bitters

Bar Keep Cocktail Bitters

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Bar Keep Bitters have a special and unique line of bitters flavors like lavender spice, baked apple, and Chinese bitters.

5. Peychaud’s Cocktail Bitters

Peychaud’s Cocktail Bitters

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Peychaud’s is a staple ingredient in the New Orleans classic, the Sazerac. This cocktail bitter is a bit gentler with a light body, sweet flavor, and notes of flora. Paloma calls!

6. Crude Sycophant Orange & Fig Cocktail Bitters

Crude Sycophant Orange & Fig Cocktail Bitters

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The combination of oranges and figs make these fruity bitters a welcome addition to your favorite cocktails. Made with a blend of select figs, orange peels, coriander, vanilla bean, and allspice, each ingredient is handpicked from organic farms and aged naturally in wooden containers. 

Best for rye, bourbon, tequila, and gin, the Crude Sycophant Orange & Fig Bitters will take your Triple Bourbon Sour to a whole new level.

7. El Guapo Polynesian Kiss Bitters

El Guapo Polynesian Kiss Bitters

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Treat yourself to a cacophony of exotic fruits in this Polynesian-inspired cocktail bitters. As in all other El Guapo products, these are certified non-GMO, vegetarian, and paleo-friendly with no added sugar. It's high time to crown the mai tai as the king of the tiki drinks.

8. Underberg Natural Herbal Bitters

Underberg Natural Herbal Bitters

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Captivate your senses with the delicious combination of anise, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, eucalyptus, and mint. Designed to aid digestion, it made its way into the bar scene and can be used in digestif cocktails such as the Amaro.

9. Scrappy’s New Orleans Cocktail Bitters

Scrappy’s New Orleans Cocktail Bitters

 

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If you’re a lover of citrus fruits and cinnamon, these bitters will work well for you. Alone, they can be amazing but together they are dynamite waiting to be unleashed. Get on with that power with the New Orleans bitters from Scrappy’s.

10. The Bitter End Moroccan Cocktail Bitters

The Bitter End Moroccan Cocktail Bitters

 

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The name might be ominous but the content is an intriguing blend of cayenne pepper, cardamom, lemon peel, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, spearmint, and ginger. It works perfectly with rum, gin, tequila, mezcal, and whiskey. Everything is handmade so you know that it is a labor of love. It can also be used in sauces and marinades to add personality to your dishes.

11. Hella Bitters Smoked Chili Cocktail Bitters

Hella Bitters Smoked Chili Cocktail Bitters

 

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Hands down to the beauty of this sensuous bottle. Based on gentian root and flavored with a myriad of herbs, these bitters make for an intriguing but utterly satisfying cocktail. 

How to Make Your Own Bitters

Just like any concoction, making your bitters is not that hard. It doesn’t need a lot of equipment nor ingredients. But just like any tasty drink, it requires some time for the mixture to settle.

Ingredients

  • Two 1-quart jars
  • Cheesecloth
  • Vodka or whiskey
  • Roots, herbs, spices, and other flavorings

Steps to Make

  1. Combine all the spices, roots, barks, and other flavorings into a jar. Then, add in the vodka or whiskey. Let it sit for two weeks. Make sure to shake it daily so the flavors can infuse evenly.
  2. Strain the spirit into a clean jar using a cheesecloth, then seal. Heat the remaining solid mixture on the stove with water. Then, put the entire mixture (water and vodka-soaked ingredients) into a separate jar. Let that sit for one week.
  3. Strain out the solids, discard and combine the infused vodka with the water. If the liquid is still murky, strain it again through the cheesecloth. 
  4. Add a bit of sweetener, if needed. You can use any syrup such as honey, molasses, or maple syrup. Once added, shake it until the sweetener is fully dissolved and let it sit for another three days. 
  5. Finally, the bitters are ready to bottle.

Conclusion

Bitters provide an edge and give a special hint to the taste of your drink that you've never had before. Don't be intimidated by its unsavory name. Contrary to popular opinion, bitters don't just make your drink bitter, they accentuate the other flavors in your cocktail too.

If you are interested in trying out quality bitters, check the ones above and add them to your list. Also, if you have any questions or remarks about bitters and how they can be used or made, we'd love to know. Drop your comments down below.

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