Angostura bitters are everywhere. Even if you’ve never dashed a bottle into an Old Fashioned, you’ve undoubtedly seen the it, with its distinctive oversized label, sitting behind pretty much every bar in the world from the lowliest dive to the craftiest cocktail establishment. You can grab a bottle next to the grocery store register like a packet of M&M’s. While you certainly need a bottle of Ango to make a traditional Old Fashioned, if you haven’t gone beyond the iconic brand, you’re missing out on arguably the most important aspect of cocktails.
The bitters category has exploded in the last couple years, with companies like Scrappy’s Bitters leading the charge. We talked to Scrappy’s founder Miles Thomas, along with his director of operations Kia Karimi, about why you need to invest in bitters for your bar.
Other Bitters Flavors Are Even More Historic
You may know you need bitters to make a “cocktail” in the most traditional sense of the term, but those old school bitters weren’t limited to Angostura. “The traditional and well-known bitters are aromatic bitters, which is what Angostura is,” Thomas says. “But before aromatic bitters [took over], orange bitters were way more popular in cocktails.” Since orange bitters are the second most popular type today, you should pick up a bottle of those first. But don’t think other flavors don’t have the same historical cache. “Prior to Prohibition there were tons of different bitters and bitters companies,” Thomas adds, “Even Jerry Thomas had his own line of bitters.”
They Make Cheap Booze Taste Better
Before bitters found their way into cocktails, they were used as herbal medicine. Karimi likes to imagine how they transitioned from bitter medicine to delicious drink ingredient. “At some point a bartender needed to take his spoonful of bitters because he was sick or whatever, and he mixed it with his whiskey, and he found that it made this young immature hooch much more balanced and well-rounded and smoother,” Karimi says. And as opposed to aromatic bitters, which taste very specifically of the roots and spices infused into them (reminiscent of their medicinal forerunners), companies like Scrappy’s offer straightforward flavors, like chocolate or grapefruit, that are more obviously enjoyable.
Bitters smooth out harsh, cheap booze, so if you’re saving money elsewhere on your home bar by buying from the bottom shelf, you can drastically improve your drinking experience by picking up a bottle or two of bitters.
Orange and Aromatic Just Go Together
Like a boozy Dorothy Boyd to Jerry Maguire, orange bitters just complete aromatic ones in cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan. Thomas likes to break down the Old Fashioned for customers to show them exactly what orange can bring to the equation. Try making an Old Fashioned without either type. Then make one with just aromatic bitters. Then make one with both aromatic and orange bitters. It’ll have you at hello.
They Last Forever, Making Them an Easy Investment
If you’re worried about branching out beyond Angostura because of the financial investment, rest assured that a bottle of bitters is a better investment and a lower risk than trying a new spirit or modifier. With a 750-ml bottle of booze you can make about 12.5 drinks. With a 5-ounce bottle of bitters and two to three dashes per, you can expect to make 150 drinks. With a stronger flavor, like Scrappy’s Cardamom bitters or Grapefruit bitters, you may only need a single dash, in which case you can squeeze up to 300 drinks out of that one bottle.
They Allow You to Get Creative
Spirits and modifiers all come with a laundry list of tasting notes, sometimes making it hard to match their flavors together in a cocktail. Bitters deliver more specific, precise flavors. As a bartender, Thomas found these simpler flavors more useful, allowing him to augment drinks more easily. “I wanted them to be versatile and easy to use,” he explains, “so having a single flavor to pair with whatever cocktail I may be doing, or add some dynamic or depth to another cocktail, was way easier than having a hodgepodge of other flavors, where you might have three or four different flavors in a single bottle.” For example, Karimi points out that Scrappy’s Chocolate bitters isn’t spiced or fancied up by other tastes like mole. Look for similar, single-minded flavors to arm yourself with an array of easily mixable tastes to add to any drink.
They Make Drinks More Satisfying
“You have five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, umami and sour,” Thomas says. “Supposedly if you can incorporate all five into one dish and you can balance it very well, they create a more satisfying dish.” The same goes for cocktails. “In a cocktail you usually have sweet and sometimes sour. If you add on”e more element of bitterness it becomes even more pleasant or rounded or satisfying cocktail.
Pretty much every drink can be rounded and balanced by bitters, and while Angostura might not be right for every drink, you can bet there’s a flavor out there that will work to elevate the cocktail.
You Can Use Bitters As Full Cocktail Ingredients
Most recipes call for just a few dashes of bitters, but you can also use them as substantial ingredients. The Trinidad Sour is the most famous drink to use a full ounce of aromatic bitters as a base, but you could also make a flip with any flavor of bitters, much like our Angostura Flip. Thomas offers that many bars, including the famed Canon in Seattle, have created wonderful cocktails by using a full ounce of Scrappy’s Lime bitters as well. This is barely charted territory, so if you’re looking to invent something totally new to the cocktail world, consider exploring the world of bitters for inspiration.