Cocktail bitters are like the condiments of the cocktail world. Without them, drinks would be flat, one-dimensional and boring. And since they’re technically a food product—rather than hard alcohol—more and more food companies are making their own uniquely flavored cocktail bitters. In a heavily saturated bitters market that’s growing by the day, it can be hard to sort through the bitters that are necessary for making drinks and the bitters that are merely trying to capitalize on a fad. So in the spirit of saving you time and money, here are five essential bitters that will prove crucial in your home bartending adventures.
Unless you drink nothing but Vodka Sodas, it’s pretty much impossible to fix a proper cocktail without a bottle of Angostura on your bar; it’s an absolute necessity. Angostura is not just a brand; it’s a flavor. And that flavor is the backbone of almost every beloved classic cocktail, from stirred and strong staples like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, to tropical, fruit-forward drinks like the Singapore Sling. Angostura is so versatile that we even mix it with seltzer and a squeeze of fresh lemon to cure hiccups. And, yes, even your Vodka Sodas can benefit from a dash or two.
Like Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s is a unique brand whose name is synonymous with its own flavor. Hailing from New Orleans, Peychaud’s was invented in the late 18th century by an apothecary named Antoine Amedie Peychaud (Buffalo Trace Distillery currently produces the bitters using the same recipe). The nearly neon red bitters have a piquant and floral taste, with a soft bitterness on the finish. Peychaud’s is an absolute must for big, easy classics like the Sazerac and the Vieux Carre, and it’s pretty much always a welcome companion for whiskey.
Another proprietary blend, Bittermens’ Tiki Bitters were created specifically for adding spice to tropical cocktails. Filled with an abundance of allspice and cinnamon that combine for a rich, spicy flavor, these bitters not only complete your Piña Colada and Mai Tai, but they also work wonders with darker, heavier amari in Black Manhattans, with darker aged rums for a twist on an Old Fashioned, and with peppery rye whiskies in Sours.
This category of bitters adds the bright citrus flavors of orange oil to your cocktail, and each brand has its own unique depth, bitterness and range of orange-flavor intensity. We highly recommend Regan’s Orange Bitters, probably the orangey-est of orange bitters you’ll find on the shelf. Our second choice are The Bitter Truth’s orange bitters, which taste slightly more bitter and less sweet than Regan’s, with a signature bright burst of cardamom on the finish. We’d also like to give an honorable mention to Bittercube’s Orange Bitters, bright and zesty orange bitters whose botanicals yield a subtle maltiness that is fantastic with Japanese single malts.
These uniquely savory bitters are the best ingredient to add to spritzy Highballs, cocktails with tequila or mezcal at their base, and Bloody Marys. Infused with celery seeds and botanicals, celery bitters have a flavor more reminiscent of a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda than the crunchy green stalk in the produce section. The top brands to try are Scrappy’s, which have a vibrant lemon acid-citrus note; The Bitter Truth’s, which are the most intensely celery-flavored; and Fee’s, the most classic and commonly used brand.