What Are Cocktail Bitters and How Should You Use Them?
When cooking, seasoning is key. An herb might add certain dimension. A spice blend might then carry the dish in a new direction. Salt can sharpen the flavor blend, building intensity. Cocktail bitters create new flavors similarly, but for drinks.
You add three dashes at the start of a drink here. You finish another with a few drops there. The disparate flavors come together under the spell of the bitters. Though not all cocktails use them, knowing their basics will help you mix better—even if you're just following recipes.
What are Bitters, Exactly?
Initially consumed for medical use, bitters have a long history with cocktails. They were a component of the very first recorded cocktail recipe in the early 1800s. What they are is neutral spirits imbued with flavors that vary based on the bottle, but are always concentrated and intense. Sure they contain alcohol, but bitters aren't something you drink alone. Like salt, they are a low-volume ingredient. As with spices, you add scant amounts to impart careful small notes.
Once upon a time, there were just a few bitters. Now, there are hundreds. With the cocktail revival of recent years, a new wave of artisans has been infusing bitters using all kinds of herbs, spices, barks, rinds, and other ingredients. There are many options. To get a feel for what bitters you like, taste around.
Did you like the French 75 you had at your neighborhood bar? Maybe buy a bottle of the orange bitters that were used.
Did your friend upend a new-age bitter into a really nice old fashioned? Ditto.
Or maybe you come across a recipe that includes bitters you've never used, bitters that, in the past, you would omit? Maybe give them a try.
The best way to get a feel for bitters is to put a drop onto a spoon and taste them. You can also uncap a bottle and give them a smell. As you start to use bitters, though, you'll want to stick to recipes and learn them by simply following. You can improvise, sure. But many of the world's great cocktail recipes use bitters—Manhattan and Zombie, Sazerac and Pisco Sour—and there's much to absorb from keeping to time-honored blueprints and paying attention.
Types of Bitters
If you want to make next-level drinks at home, you'll want to stock a few kinds of bitters, starting with the classics.
This ultra-classic bitter has a pungent depth, heavily but roundly spiced. Bottles come in many sizes. Though you'll be reaching for this bottle more than most, even four ounces go a long way. The Angostura website reads, "A cocktail cabinet without Angostura is like a kitchen without salt and pepper." There's some truth here. Even the Old Fashioned uses Angostura.
This dark red concoction was first made in New Orleans. This bitter has a note of sweetness but retains a spice and aromatic level you'd expect in bitters. Most notably, Peychaud's is the cornerstone of a Sazerac.
Third, something a little brighter, like orange bitters, would round out your bitters lineup nicely. Orange bitters tend to be fragrant and fruity without a lot of sweetness—more like orange peel than the juicy flesh at the round fruit's center.
All three of these are classic. The bitters released by newer artisans in recent years go into all manner of new directions. They contain flavors of fig, chocolate, lavender, even sage. Some of the renowned brands are Bittermens and The Bitter Truth. They enhance not only flavor and aroma, but the visuals of a drink, too.
Given how pervasive artisan bitters have become, you likely have some crafted in your state, maybe even a few that use specialized local ingredients. Try these for a sense of place. Wielding them and other bitters catalyzes huge flavors using tiny drops. Strategically added, they'll boost your cocktail game.