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.
How Are Bitters Made
All bitters begin with a base of high-proof spirit. This could be a neutral liquor like Everclear or Devil’s Spring 151-proof vodka, but brown liquors like Gosling’s 151-proof rum and Wild Turkey 101 work well too. At least one bittering agent such as wormwood, gentian root, quassia or cinchona bark must be used in the formula. Aside from the bittering agent, ingredients can range from herbs and spices, to fruit and citrus peels.
To infuse a spirit with the botanicals, producers macerate the ingredients in the spirit for about a month. After maceration is complete, the liquid is diluted in order to bring down the proof. The concoction is then strained, and the bitters are cocktail-ready.
Notable Bitters Styles and Brands
Angostura: Perhaps the most well-known brand of bitters, Angostura is named after the town in Venezuela where the bitters were first produced (now called Ciudad Bolivar). Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, the appointed surgeon general in revolutionary Simón Bolívar’s army, first created the now famous aromatic bitters in 1824 as a digestive aid for the troops. Word of his tummy settling product spread to sailors who were suffering from seasickness, and the bitters quickly found their way around the world. When Dr. Siegert’s sons took over the family business, they moved it to Trinidad in 1870 because of increasing political instability in Venezuela. The company continues to operate there today. Now, Angostura bitters are used in a plethora of cocktails like Champagne Cocktails, Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. Along with Peychaud’s, it was one of the only bitters brands to survive Prohibition.
Peychaud’s: Peychaud’s have a distinct anise flavor and are an essential ingredient in a Sazerac, a classic cocktail invented in 1850 at the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans. Peychaud’s was developed by pharmacist Antoine Amedie Peychaud, who often experimented with the use of herbs and other botanicals for medicinal purposes. He began selling them at his NOLA apothecary in 1838. They were eventually purchased by the Sazerac company, which still owns the bitters today.
Additional Bitters Types
- Fruit, Citrus & Vegetables
Herbs, Spices & Flowers
Coffee, Nuts & Chocolate
- Tiki: This spiced variety of bitters from Bittermens was inspired by both the Eastern (Polynesia) and Western (Caribbean) schools of tropical cocktails.
- Sriracha: Created by Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters, these bitters add spicy notes to both sweet and savory cocktails
- Maple: Urban Moonshine’s Maple Digestive Bitters are perfect for mixing cocktails or flavoring a soda after a big meal.
- Whiskey Barrel-Aged: Both Fee Brothers and Woodford Reserve make their own versions of this type of bitters.
- Mole: Bittermens originally intended their Xocolatl Mole Bitters to be dashed into straight tequila, but the spicy, chocolatey bitters took on a life of their own, and they are now used in a range of cocktails. Other bitters producers like The Bitter Truth and The Bitter End also offer mole-flavored bitters.
- Moroccan Bitters: Made by The Bitter End, this blend of coriander, lemon, mint and cinnamon make the perfect addition to your favorite rum cocktails.
Can I Drink Bitters Straight?
People used to sip straight bitters, but we wouldn’t recommend it. But if you’d like to experience their digestive benefits without the addition of a spirit, simply dash them into soda water.
Notable Bitters Cocktails
Manhattan: Perhaps the most well-known drink, second only to the Martini, this rye-based cocktail is one of the true classics. Like the island whose name it shares, the drink is sweet, strong, eternally cool and retains a dangerous edge.
Champagne Cocktail: After the original cocktail—a mix of alcohol, sugar, water and bitters—there was the Champagne Cocktail, which cocktail historian David Wondrich refers to as the “first evolved cocktail.”
Old Fashioned: Perhaps no drink showcases the power of bitters more than the Old Fashioned, a cocktail made simply with whiskey, one sugar cube and Angostura bitters.
Martinez: This take on the Manhattan replaces rye with gin and adds a splash of maraschino liqueur for a fruit-forward twist.
Pisco Sour: You could say bitters are the star of this Peruvian classic or, at the very least, the focal point. Bartenders dash Angostura bitters onto the frothy top of the cocktail and often use them to create intricate designs.
Rob Roy: This smoky take on the Manhattan replaces rye with scotch.
Vieux Carre: Invented at New Orleans’ Monteleone Hotel in 1938, this cocktail is as strong as it is delicious. It alludes to the city’s Franco-American style with a backbone of rye and sweet vermouth, and adds Cognac and Bénédictine to the mix.
Pink Gin: Perhaps one of the simplest classic cocktails on the planet, this easy mix of gin and Angostura bitters was a fashionable English drink in the mid-19th century. But beware: Only the true gin lover will enjoy this strong beverage.
Bitters in Culture
- The Pink Gin cocktail makes an appearance in the James Bond novel The Man With the Golden Gun, in which Bond orders a Beefeater with “plenty of bitters” at the Thunderbird Hotel bar.
- In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Benjamin’s dad orders two Sazeracs upon meeting his son at a New Orleans brothel.
- Don Draper is perhaps one of the most famous pop culture characters to sip an Old Fashioned. He’s seen throwing them back in his office, at lunch and basically almost every other hour of the day throughout Mad Men’s seven seasons.