Bitters are the salt and pepper of the cocktail world. Made by steeping things like herbs, roots, citrus peels, seeds, spices, flowers and barks in high-proof alcohol, the potent, concentrated flavoring agents marry ingredients and bring balance to cocktails. Here, everything you need to know about these cocktail staples.
The History of Bitters
The use of bitters in mixology dates back to one of the first printed mentions of a cocktail from an early 1800s issue of The Balance, and Columbian Repository of Hudson, NY, which defined a cocktail as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” But bitters existed long before cocktails were in vogue.
In the 1700s, bitters were consumed straight for medicinal purposes as a cure-all for everything from headaches to indigestion. They were considered a “patent medicine,” an over-the-counter remedy advertised for medical integrity without regard to actual effectiveness.
In the early 1800s, bitters got an unexpected boost from the Temperance movement. In many circles during that time, bitters were the only acceptable form of alcohol consumption. And, unaffected by any spirit taxation, they were also the most affordable alcoholic substances on the market. The bitters market bloomed into a multi-million dollar industry. New brands started cropping up on shelves, boasting more and more outrageous health benefits. Some even declared their formulas could cure things like malaria. For the most part, it was all lies.
Bitters were finally regulated by the federal government in 1906 thanks to the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required manufacturers to label ingredients, lower the proof of bitters and remove any statements that claimed the formulas could cure ailments. Less reputable brands suffered, but companies like Peychaud’s and Angostura, which the bartending community had embraced as necessary ingredients for drinks like Old Fashioneds and Sazeracs, stayed strong—until the Volstead Act was passed in 1919. During Prohibition, bitters became illegal. Even speakeasies couldn’t keep bitters in business.
In the years following Prohibition, bitters almost went extinct. Following WWII, Peychaud’s and Angostura were the only brands left until Fee Brothers launched in 1951 with its aromatic bitters and orange bitters.
The bitters market remained sparse until 2005 when legendary barman and author Gary “Gaz” Regan launched Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6. These spiced orange bitters opened up the floodgate for new artisanal bitters brands. Today, there are hundreds of flavors available ranging from tiki to turmeric.