What Are Bitters?

standard March 29, 2016 Leave a response

A flavoring agent used to balance cocktails, bitters are an infusion of things like fruit peels, tree bark, roots, and flowers with high-octane alcohol. Described as a nonpotable ingredient (as opposed to potable digestive bitters, like Campari), Bitters has recently come to the forefront of contemporary cocktail culture. As a result, home bartenders of all levels are discovering this mysterious elixr and the wonderful effect it can have on your favorite cocktails.

A Quick History

Bitters have been around since at least the 1700s. At that time, people believed them to be a magical cure-all that could cure anything from headaches to gastrointestinal problems. While those assertions were embellished, it turned out that bitters do make some things better—namely cocktails.

The oldest and most common types of bitters are Peychaud’s and Angostura, the first named for its inventor and the second named for the Venezuelan town in which it was created. Some common cocktails with bitters like these are the Sazerac, Manhattan, and champagne cocktail, among many others.


A “Bitter” Experience

Taken alone, cocktail bitters are not a very pleasant experience, but add a dash or two of Angostura bitters to your old-fashioned and see how it balances the sweetness of the sugar and whiskey. Still not convinced? Mix up a martini and add two drops of old-fashioned bitters. The result will speak for itself.

A Bitters Renaissance

After the “Angosturapocalypse” of 2009, when the famous Angostura bitters mysteriously disappeared from shelves only to reappear six months later, there came something of a bitters renaissance. All different types of bitters, like orange, lavender, celery, and even chocolate lined bartops and littered cocktail recipes as speakeasies came back into fashion. Popular bitters brands that produce flavored bitters like these are Fee Brothers, Regans’, Bittermans and Scrappy’s.

Bitters Types: A Brief Description

Bitters can be a very mysterious topic which can require some painstaking research, but here you’ll find a basic description of some of the most popular types. Generally, these are all fairly mainstream, but if you’re interested in making your own, kits are available:

Angostrua Aromatic Bitters – Offering flavors like cardamom, nutmeg, and cinnamon, this is the classic that provides versatility for almost every cocktail.

Peychaud’s – Described as somewhat lighter and sweeter than Angostrua, Peychaud’s Bitters also features a mild anise (licorice) flavor that brings cocktails like the Sazerac alive.

Orange – Simply put, this imparts and orange flavor however different brands offer a different twist on this classic.

CitrusGrapefruit and Hops bitters are often the next step for beginning home bartenders who are searching to expand their flavor profiles.

Spicy – The addition of a spicy kick is popular and available flavors range from smoke and spice to black pepper.

Celery – Providing a mild, herbal flavor these are often very pleasant in Gin-based cocktails and frequently used in cooking too.

Where to Buy Bitters

You can find bitters at many specialty grocery stores, but uncovering some of the more interesting flavors can become a real treasure hunt. After all your local grocery store is unlikely to carry bbq cocktail aromatic bitters . (Yes, that really exists.) As a result, turning to the internet to find the flavors that pique your interest is probably your best course of action. If some of the options above doesn’t tickle your fancy, some others include:


However you come by them, the next time you slug down a Sazerac or consume a Cuba Libre, take a moment to appreciate the oft-neglected flavor these infusions add to your drinking pleasure. If you’re feeling adventurous at home, try adding bitters to your favorite cocktails or even a glass of soda water. You might just find that bitters really do make everything better.


J.G.C. Wise is a writer, musician, and cocktail enthusiast always on the lookout for ways to tie the three things together. After a serendipitous stint mixing classic cocktails at a private party, Mr. Wise began experimenting with mixology in his kitchen--a pastime that is still going strong five years later. He is most proud of the original cocktails he's created, and always looks forward to a new occasion calling for a new, unique libation.