Bitters are a common bar ingredient that were considered a necessity in the early definition of a cocktail, but were left out of many drinks until their recent comeback thanks, in part, to an interest in classic cocktails.
Many brands of bitters began as medicinal tonics and soon found a home in cocktails as concentrated flavor stimulants that add a nice kick to the mix even though they are only used by the dash. The often secret formulas include a variety of herbs, fruits, spices, and roots distilled in a base liquor. In today's bar, bitters are essential, continue to evolve, and each bring their own qualities to each cocktail, so don't be afraid to experiment.
I have listed a number of bitter producers below. These are some of the best known, though there are a growing number of small brands that are producing some great bitters. Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters' Black Mission Fig is just one example of these and one that I recommend checking out.
More Bitter Details:
- Bitters are nonpotable, meaning that they are not meant to be consumed neat or on the rocks.
- Bitters can also be used in cooking... soups, salad dressings, pumpkin and apple pies, fish, etc.
- Orange bitters were once favored over aromatic and were in the original Martini.
- Older bitters which are almost extinct but may be listed in traditional recipes include Boker's, Boonekamp, Amer Picon, Hostetter's, West Indies, Pepsin, Fernet Branca, and Underberg. Substitute the modern brands if you see them in print.
- Make your own bitters. Find other great recipes in the books Imbibe!, Joy of Mixology and The Everything Bartender's Book.
- Better known as liqueurs, Averna and Campari are bitters as well.
- An excellent source for unusual bitters is Cocktail Kigndom.
- Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All - Written by Brad Thomas Parsons and released in 2011 is an excellent book that explains bitters in great detail and includes recipes. Compare Prices
Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Possibly the most popular brand of bitters, Angostura should be considered a must when stocking a bar of any seriousness. The story begins with Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a German doctor who found himself in Angostura, Venezuela in 1824 where he created this secret blend of tropical herbs and plants with the intent of curing a variety of illnesses. The brand is now produced in Trinidad and the blend is still a well-kept, but much appreciated secret. The oversized, awkward label has also become a trademark of the brand. It's said that the wrong size was ordered and everyone in the facility thought someone else would fix the mistake, no one did and the label remains.
Angostura Orange Bitters
In 2008 Angostura released an orange bitter and it's everything one would anticipate from a company held in such high esteem in this tiny bottle market. This bottling has the same signature label as its aromatic counterpart so it is easily recognizable on the shelf. The clear bitters hold a perfectly citrus taste and compliment the best of cocktails when just a touch of acidy, bittery citrus is needed.
Fee Brothers Bitters
Fee Brothers has a line of bitters that has been produced in Rochester New York since the 1950's. What started for the family in 1847 as a butcher, then liquor, shop developed into a winery and importer. The bitters came later and rose in popularity with the distinction of being one of the most diverse lines of bitters.
- Old Fashion Aromatic: use in Black and Red, Tuxedo
- Orange: use in Duplex, Ginspresso Martini
- Aztec Chocolate: use in Early Autumn
- Peach: use in Koi Cocktail, New Old-fashioned
- Mint: add to Mint Julep, Mojito, Kiwi Mango Mint
- Lemon: add to Gin & Tonic, Fennel Lemon Crunch, Whiskey Sour
- Grapefruit: add to Firefly, Nevada Cocktail, Cantarito
- Rhubarb: use in The Rube, Rhubarb Collins
- Whiskey Barrel-Aged: use in Colkegan Scotch Lassie, Happily Ever After
Other Fee Brothers Bitters include: Black Walnut, Celery, Cherry, Cranberry, Gin Barrel-Aged Orange, Plum, and West Indian Orange.
Antoine Peychaud was an apothecary in 1830's New Orleans and began his mixing career after hours in his pharmacy. It was at that time that Peychaud mixed up his secret-recipe bitters with brandy and absinthe and created the first Sazerac, a cocktail that defined and influenced future cocktails. Peychaud's bitters are used today in a number of cocktails and the aromatic blend is considered one of the must-have's of any well-stocked bar.
Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6
One of the newest bitters on the scene, Regans' Orange Bitter No. 6 is a shining star in the cocktail world. The idea was that of cocktail experts and authors Gary and Mardee Regan, who in the 1990's wanted a better orange bitter. The result is versatile bitters of orange peel, cardamom, caraway, coriander and other herbs inspired by an old recipe.
- Abbey Cocktail
- Blood Orange Sazerac
- Game Set Match
- Fall Spice Cordial
- Fancy Whiskey
- Palin's Christmas Punch
Scrappy's was one of the first handcrafted bitters labels in the U.S. during the recent cocktail (and bitter) resurgence. The company started in 2008 and their simply flavored bitters are extremely useful in a variety of cocktails. The current product line includes: Aromatic, Cardamom, Celery, Chocolate, Grapefruit, Lavender, Lime, and Orange.
The Bitter Truth and Bittermens were once working together to produce a few bottle of bitters, though it now seems that they are separated and each producing full lines of bitters. Read a review of the bitters from that time with the understanding that either of these companies is now solely responsible for different flavors.
That said, The Bitter Truth makes some of the best bitters you will find on the market today. Each of these were formulated specifically for classic cocktails and are perfect for modern drinks as well.
- Aromatic Bitters: use in San Francisco Cocktail, Jersey Cocktail
- Celery Bitters: use in Georgia on My Mind
- Chocolate Bitters: use in Chocolate Margarita
- Creole Bitters: use in Brandy Cocktail
- Grapefruit Bitters: use in It's About That Time, The Sweaty Hipster
- Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters: use in any classic cocktail or as a substitute for aromatic bitters
- Lemon Bitters: use in Manuka & Maple Sour
- Orange Bitters: use in Dorflinger, Valencia Cocktail
- Peach Bitters: use in Coronation, Sage Lady
- Tonic Bitters: add to Gin & Tonic
Another craft bitters brand, Bittercube produces a variety of unique bitters that can turn many favorite cocktails into spectacular drinks. Their Bolivar bitters are an aromatic and can be used in any cocktail calling for 'bitters' while the Jamaican #1 and #2 bitters are designed perfectly for tropical cocktails. Other flavors from Bittercube include: Blackstrap, Cherry Bark Vanilla, and Orange.
Bar Code Bitters
The Greenbar Collective has an interesting collection of bitters that rotates from time to time. The distillery works with individual bartenders to create innovative bitters that are exciting to work with. The current list of bitters includes: Baked Apple, Chinese Bitters, Fennel, and Lavender Spice.
The Bitter End Bitters
Bittermens produces a line of bitters that are fun to play with and are different from those produced by other companies. The product line is very experimental and interesting and includes the following flavors: Xocolatl Mole, Hopped Grapefruit, Elemakule Tiki, Burlesque Bitters, New England Spiced Cranberry, New Orleans Coffee, and Aromatic Cucumber.