Now that cocktails have made their way back into the current drinking repertoire, it’s time to take a look at one the elements of many a good cocktail: bitters. These days, there are many different kinds of bitters with wildly diverging flavor profiles — from blueberry to celery — but their aim is the same. All bitters are concentrated elixirs of botanicals that add nuance and balance to a drink. The flavor doesn’t punch you in the mouth like a a glug of piña colada mix does — but a few drops of bitters can separate a great cocktail from a serviceable one.
A heap of classic and new recipes follow, so you can start flexing your bitters-dripping muscles right away.
In the broad sense, bitters can mean any liquid with bitterness that we can drink. Some are as drinkable as soda, but what we’re discussing today is the most potent and household-handy interpretation: cocktail bitters. Cocktail bitters are high proof — around 40% alcohol — not to get you drunk quickly, but to preserve the botanicals therein. (Cocktail bitters are undrinkable on their own to sane folk, and therefore not considered a regulated product.)
The most widely-distributed and oldest brand still in production is Angostura Aromatic Bitters. It would be in my top 10 list of items to have in your home bar, and an indispensable ingredient to many classic cocktails. It’s a heady blend of barks, roots and botanicals native to its birthplace, Venezuela (although it’s now produced in Trinidad). The recipe is a secret, but it’s obvious there are quite a bit of spices involved, and smells like what I think of as Christmas on crack. The bitterness mainly comes from the Gentian root. They also produce a fine orange bitters that I prefer in my Marguerite, arguably the precursor to the Martini.
The other notable producer who’s had a nice, long run is Peychaud’s, originally of New Orleans and a key ingredient in Sazerac (one of the oldest cocktails in America). It’s on the opposite side of the flavor spectrum from Angostura with a not-so-bitter profile that’s punchy with licorice and floral aromas.
Aside from those two stand-alones, there are heaps of new types of bitters in production. If you ask a cocktail bartender to name all the companies (never mind the flavors), you just may be able to stump them with several new brands.
Whether you’ve never heard of bitters, or you’re dying to round out your collection, the cool part about bitters is that they don’t go bad, and they are relatively cheap considering that a cocktail needs just a few dashes to add a nice bit of flavor. The list I have here is in no way comprehensive, but it does give a fairly rounded view of what’s on the market.
- Regan’s Orange Bitters: Heavy on the cardamom and a nice addition to an Old-Fashioned or Manhattan. - Amargo Chuncho: Similar to Angostura, but from Peru, with a hint of cherry. - Dutch’s Colonial Bitters - Sweetgrass Cranberry & Blueberry Bitters - Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters: Floral, astringent flavor with a subtle finish. - Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters: The spicy side of dark chocolate. - Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters: Very straightforward and versatile. - Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters: Made from a recipe dating back to the early 1800s; floral spices and citrus flavor. - The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters: Predominant celery flavor with a zesty citrus finish.
Now, onto how to drink all these bitters. For good form, let’s start off by perusing a few classic drinks, and how you can give them an ‘update’ by swapping out different types of bitters. In all my years of bartending, I’ve never found a drinker I couldn’t match with a drink that contained bitters, so have good faith. Lastly, I’ll list a few modern recipes that have a good format for experimenting with different types of bitters.
Marguerite Stephan Berg, one half of the team behind The Bitter Truth, a Munich-based manufacturer, traced this recipe’s first known publication to an 1896 book called “Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them.”
2 ounces dry gin (Tanqueray works well) 1 ounce dry vermouth (I prefer Dolin) 1-2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters (Or swap out with Sweetgrass Blueberry or Cranberry)
Stir well over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist an orange peel on top.
Manhattan Simple and satisfying, this is a drink that really benefits from closely-measured ingredients. You want to taste the whiskey, with just enough vermouth to smooth out the bite. Manhattans may be the perfect canvas for showing off the flavors in a bitters.
2 ounces rye whiskey (Old Overholt, Russell’s Reserve 6 Year) 1 ounces sweet vermouth (I prefer Carpano Antica) 3 dashes Angostura Bitters (I often substitute with Dutch’s Bitters, and I like to add a dash of Regan’s Orange Bitters)
Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry, a twist of orange peel, or both.
Bitters & Soda This is the perfect tummy settler, and, if you want to enjoy the aromatics of the bitters, go without a straw.
To an ice-filled highball or pint glass, add:
8-12 dashes cocktail bitters (play around with types and combinations of bitters!) Squeeze a lemon wedge and drop it in. Top with seltzer and stir.
Pink Gin Popular in the U.K. during the mid-19th century, this concoction is thought to have originated from the Royal Navy.
2 ounces Plymouth Gin 1-2 dashes of Angostura (I often substitute cranberry bitters, or Peychaud’s)
Stir over ice and strain into a small chilled cocktail glass (a large shot glass works too). Twist a lemon peel over the top to release the oils, then toss it.
Sazerac Earthy and herbal, this is perhaps the oldest cocktail in America.
2 ounces rye whiskey (Old Overholt, Sazerac Rye, Russell’s Reserve 6 Year.) ¼ ounce Demerara syrup (2 parts Demerara sugar to 1 part boiling water stirred until fully dissolved.) 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters (I usually add a dash of Angostura as well.)
Stir well over ice and strain into an absinthe-rinsed chilled rocks glass (prepare the glass by adding a few drops of Absinthe to the sides and swirling it around). Twist a peel of lemon on top and discard.
Old-Fashioned Leave off the muddled marachino cherry for a more historically accurate, and more delicious, cocktail.
2 ounces rye whiskey (Some people prefer bourbon, I use Weller 107.) ¼ ounce Demerara syrup (See recipe above.) 3 dashes Angostura (I typically add a dash of orange bitters, and/or Dutch’s Bitters.)
Stir over ice and strain into an old-fashioned glass with a large ice cube. Garnish with a twist of lemon, orange or both.
Champagne Cocktail This is an easy drink to serve to large parties. You can even leave out a selection of bitters, sugar cubes and bottles of bubbly on ice and let folks assemble as they like.
In a champagne flute, add:
1 sugar cube doused in bitters (Most classic brands will work.) Fill with chilled champagne. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
Queen’s Park Swizzle This drink is the precursor to the Mojito, with plenty more depth and beauty.
To a collins glass, add: 2 ounces rum (Lemon Hart, or Appleton’s VX works fine) ½ ounce Demerara syrup (see recipe above) ½ ounce fresh lime juice 6-8 mint leaves
Add bit of crushed ice and swizzle all ingredients together with a swizzle stick. (If you don’t have a swizzle stick, hold the top of a bar spoon between your flat hands and rub them together making the spoon swirl in the glass — the idea is to agitate the mint to release its oils.)
Fill the glass with crushed ice and top with several dashes of Angostura (And feel free to substitute any type and combination here.)
Garnish with a smacked sprig of mint (lay it on your hand and slap it with the other hand) and a straw.
Old Gold Recipe by Sean Hoard of Clyde Common & Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon.
1 ¼ ounces blanco tequila (Don Julio, Siete Lenguas) ¾ ounce dry vermouth (I prefer Dolin) ½ Cynar (An artichoke-based bitter liqueur from Italy 1 dash celery bitters 1 dash aromatic bitters (Like Angostura or Amargo Chuncho)
Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist a peel of grapefruit on top and discard.
Way Forward Recipe by Lydia Reissmueller of tenderBAR in Portland, Oregon.
2 ounces Amber Rum (Appleton’s VX, Mt. Gay Eclipse) 1 heaping bar spoon dark fruit preserves (like fig, blackberry or plum) 2 dashes Dutch’s Colonial Bitters 2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
Stir well over ice until preserves are integrated, fine strain (with a tea strainer) into an ice-filled Old-Fashioned glass. Top with 1 ounce of your favorite amber ale (I like The Bruery’s Loakal Red). Garnish with a speared piece candied ginger.
FURTHER READING Camper English writes about everything cocktail. The Alcademics. Watch Jamie Boudreau execute some mighty tasty cocktails. A bit cheesy, but worth it. Raising the Bar, Small Screen Network. A blog to trust: Spirits and Cocktails Imbibe Magazine, the best drinks publication in the country.