The Hooch Life

What the Heck Are Bitters Anyway?

Learn about what bitters are and how to use bitters in cocktails
Photo by Sheila Griffin

When you talk about bitters, the first reaction from the uninitiated is usually something like, “I don’t like bitter.” As Brad Parsons, author and cocktail enthusiast, explains, “It’s more of a seasoning; it’s not necessarily bitter.”

Technically speaking, bitters are simply high-proof alcohol infused with herbs, fruit barks, seeds, and other flavorful ingredients. This concentrated flavor is used by the dash or drop to “make your cocktail seamless,” says Colt & Gray Head Barman Kevin Burke.

For all you athletes and sports fans out there, Parsons says you can think of bitters as “sort of a sixth man on the bench. It goes in there and unites the team, but you shouldn’t be tasting it, knowing what it’s doing.”

Making Cocktails with Bitters

Actually, it would save us time to talk about cocktails that don’t have bitters in them because so many cocktails call for bitters. The first definition of a cocktail from 1806 is “spirits, water, sugar and bitters,” essentially an Old Fashioned. Most other classic cocktails are made with bitters. The three most commonly used kinds of bitters are:

Angostura: an aromatic bitters with flavors of clove and allspice, most famously used in the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.
Peychaud’s: perfect for most New Orleans cocktails, Peychaud’s tastes like licorice, anise and herbs. Use it in the Sazerac cocktail. “Historically, it belongs in your shelf,” says Parsons.
Orange bitters: the classic orange bitters is citrusy and slightly bitter, like orange peel. Add a dash to your next Gin Martini, or go crazy and try it in a Manhattan.

Beyond these basics, there are a growing number of creative bitters available, including mole chocolate bitters, Meyer lemon, black mission fig and rhubarb. And many bartenders are extending their interest in small-batch, craft spirits by making their own bitters to complement specific cocktails.

Buying and Making Bitters

If you’re just getting into making cocktails at home, start by buying a few staple bitters for your bar. If you haven’t bought bitters before, start in your grocery store, not the liquor store. Because bitters are classified as a food product rather than a spirit, some liquor stores won’t sell them. You’ll find Angostura bitters either in the beverage aisle or with the condiments at the grocery store.

In addition to using bitters in cocktails, you can add a few dashes to some club soda. It’s refreshing and can help alleviate common ailments like stomach aches and hangovers.

If you’re an avid home bartender, you might want to try making your own. Brad Parsons says that making bitters is “a great DIY experiment. If you’re into cocktails, it’s a natural one to do.” But, he advises, “it takes patience.” After you’ve tracked down some of the more obscure ingredients, the infusion process takes about a month. One batch will yield about 4 bottles, just enough to give as gifts during the holidays to a few close friends.

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The Hooch Life Guide to American Whiskey