Think of bitters like salt and pepper for a cocktail: a sprinkle of seasoning that balances out the flavors of a dish.
“Bitters are a wonderful way to augment the flavor profile of a drink,” says Lauren Mote, an award-winning mixologist and co-founder of Bittered Sling Bitters. “By adding a bitter component to other balanced ingredients, something magical happens. The cocktail dries out ever so slightly, the nuances of flavor bloom within the other elements. Finally, the drink tastes like a complete flavor, rather than a stop-and-start mix of components.”
These little bottles are cocktail essentials. A few drops can make a drastic change to anything from a gin & tonic to an Old Fashioned.
“Make two Manhattans,” says Mote. “One with two dashes of aromatic bitters (classic), and one without. It’s astounding how drastically two milliliters can change things.”
But what are aromatic bitters? Mote defines them as “high-proof infusions made with thoughtful ingredients.”
Styles of bitters will vary, but generally call for a blend of botanicals and spices. Some brands feature dozens of ingredients in each bottle. “[Bitters] have complex, layered flavor profiles, thanks to the balance of herbs and spices being mixed and aged together,” says Edoardo Branca, of amaro house Fernet-Branca.
Aromatic bitters were first patented in 1712, when doctors would prescribe them to treat stomach ailments. Some started to use them as hangover cures, as they would add a few dashes to wine or brandy to soothe aches and pains. As time went by, bitters transitioned from a remedy to a staple cocktail ingredient, though modern-day health food stores still stock bitters as digestive aids.
What brands should you know? “Angostura [bitters] and Peychaud’s [bitters] are the granddaddies of bitters,” says Mote. “They’re the brands that have effectively created the category as we know it today.”
In recent years, the bitters world has expanded to include countless varieties, from chocolate and habanero to cherry and crabapple. Here, an explainer of the two most commonly used brands, Angostura and Peychaud’s, plus two other options to consider when creating cocktails at home.
What are Angostura Bitters?
If the name Angostura doesn’t ring a bell, the distinct bottle should jog your memory. It’s the world’s top-selling and oldest bitters brand in production, most recognizable by its oversized white label and bright yellow cap. The quirky label was initially a production fluke, but it’s now the brand’s distinguishing feature.
In 1824, Angostura bitters was invented by Dr. Johann Siegert in Angostura, Venezuela. At first, his intentions were purely medicinal. He declared his blend of 40 spices and botanicals a cure for stomach ailments, and he circulated the potion to the soldiers of Simón Bolívar’s army.
“The product’s medical usage continued through the 1870s until Dr. Siegert’s sons, the Siegert Brothers, took over the company and migrated to the island of Trinidad,” says Mitch Cooper, Angostura’s brand manager. “One of his sons, Don Carlos, realized that the complex flavors of Angostura aromatic bitters perfectly complemented the characters in a cocktail or food when incorporated—or ‘dashed’—in moderation.”
Siegert’s recipe is still used today, but it’s under tight wraps. It’s said that only five people know the exact ingredients.
“The secret mixture is infused with a high-proof spirit,” says Cooper. “We then combine it with brown sugar, coloring and dilute it down to 44.7% alcohol.”
Many classic cocktails, like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan, call for a dash or two of Angostura to add bitterness and spice.
“You can also add a few dashes to a glass of gin and find yourself drinking a lovely pink gin cocktail, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II,” says Cooper. Newer recipes, like the Bitter Last Word or the Trinidad Sour, demand a full mouth-puckering ounce of Angostura.
What are Peychaud’s Bitters?
Invented in the 1830s by pharmacist Antoine Amédée Peychaud, the gentian-based, anise-forward Peychaud’s Bitters has a distinctly New Orleans identity.
“During the daytime, Peychaud was prescribing the blend for those with anything from stomach aches to migraines,” says Mote. “But during the evenings, Peychaud was acting somewhat of a bartender, combining his medicinal tincture, absinthe and brandy together. This became affectionately known as ‘Peychaud’s Cocktail.’ ”
The cocktail caught on with the help of French Quarter coffeehouse owner Sewell Taylor, who used Peychaud’s in his “Sazerac” cocktail in the early 1800s. Today, Peychaud’s Bitters is still a crucial part of a Sazerac.
What are Orange Bitters?
“Orange bitters are a zesty blend of tropical oranges and spices,” says Cooper. The orange notes come from dried zest of orange peels, typically from Seville or the West Indies, with spices of Gentian root, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and coriander.
“Orange bitters are a wonderful way to bloom flavors in white spirits, specifically gin,” says Mote. She says orange bitters were called for in the original martini recipe, in addition to gin and white vermouth.
Cooper agrees. “Orange bitters are the soul of an exceptional dry martini.”
You can also add them to tropical-leaning drinks like margaritas and daiquiris, or try a dash of orange bitters in a pour of whiskey or Bourbon.
What are Chocolate Bitters?
A dash or two of chocolate bitters, commonly made with cacao nibs and spices, will add a subtle nuttiness to cocktails. While they might seem in the dessert realm, chocolate bitters play very well with sweet vermouth or aged spirits, like whiskeys or rums. Try them in cocktails like Manhattans, or with a dash of vermouth and soda for an easy, low-alcohol aperitif.
Also in the chocolate bitters family: mole bitters, made with chilies and cacao.