Dashes of bitters, such as the well-known Angostura or Peychaud’s, have long completed the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Sazerac and other classic cocktails. During the craft cocktail renaissance of the early aughts, the types of bitters available to bartenders began to multiply. But what are these drops of flavor and why do bartenders use them? Here, experts break down the bitter basics.
What Are Bitters?
Bitters are essentially extractions of fruit, spices and botanicals in a spirit, such as vodka. As the name suggests, they require a bittering agent, such as gentian root, wormwood or cinchona bark. The mixture is left for a few days to a few weeks, allowing the alcohol to extract the botanical essences.
A Brief History of Bitters
The use of bitters for medicinal purposes can be traced back to ancient China, India, Egypt, Africa and Greece. From the Middle Ages through the 19th century, apothecaries would infuse alcohol with spices, barks and herbs to create tonics for indigestion, inflammation, malaria and other ailments.
For some early Americans, drinking bitters was a morning ritual, and drams of them were often sold in bars. These tiny vials of booze—often with Madeira, rum or brandy as a base—might be flavored with juniper, mint, orange peel, spicebush berries or mugwort.
Today, Angostura and Peychaud’s tend to be the most familiar bitters. They have been around since the 1800s and each play central roles in classic American cocktails. In the early 2000s, companies such as Bittermens, Scrappy’s Bitters, The Bitter Truth and Hella Cocktail Co. reignited the category and are slowly becoming more recognizable.
Why Are Bitters Used in Cocktails?
“I would analogize them to the salt and pepper of the bar,” says Tobin Ludwig, co-owner of Hella Cocktail Co. who started out making bitters more than a decade ago in a Brooklyn, New York, apartment with co-owners Jomaree Pinkard and Eddie Simeon.
Nelson German, chef and owner of Sobre Mesa restaurant and cocktail lounge in Oakland, California, echoes that sentiment. “It is amazing how they add complexity,” he says.
New York City’s Amor Y Amargo is so devoted to bitters that out front is a cozy shop selling hundreds of tinctures in almost every flavor imaginable—cardamom, yuzu, Memphis barbecue and green strawberry among them. Sother Teague, the bartender and cocktail consultant who helped open the establishment in 2011, perhaps sums up the appeal of bitters best: “You wouldn’t eat unseasoned soup, so why would you drink an unseasoned cocktail?” he says. “It’s the finishing touch. The thing that ties the ingredients together.”
How Are Bitters Made?
Making bitters seems straightforward enough. Add fruit peels, stems, barks and spices to neutral alcohol and let them steep for anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Commercial producers dig into every aspect of that process: Which alcohol to use, which combination of botanicals, temperature and extraction times.
Hella Cocktail Co. makes bitters by filling giant tea bags with spices, peels and botanicals and letting them infuse in stainless-steel tanks. “Time is a really important component,” says Ludwig. Once the extraction process is over and components are blended back together, water is added to dilute the mixture, which usually ends up between 35% and 45% alcohol by volume.
For Vancouver’s Ms. Better’s Bitters, timing is crucial. “I really believe in letting each ingredient have its moment. Certain ingredients will need more time, some will need less,” says Sam Unger, who co-founded the company with her family.