A Beginner’s Guide to Bitters, Every Bartender’s Not-So-Secret Weapon
They’re not just for Old Fashioneds
Bitters are the duct tape of cocktails: They’ll fix pretty much anything.
So for our drinking edification and yours, we spoke with three mixology experts to better understand what they are, where to buy ‘em, and how to fix a drink that’ll really make ‘em sing.
- Max Green, Head Bartender of the bitters-forward bar Amor y Amargo (NYC)
- Sother Teague, Beverage Director at Amor y Amargo, 2017 Wine Enthusiast “Mixologist of the Year” and author of the upcoming I’m Just Here for the Drinks
- Robin Kirk Wolf, Owner/Bitters Master of SLO Bitter Co., Cocktail Czar of The Hatch Rotisserie and Bar (Paso Robles, CA)
Here’s the bitters truth …
What are bitters?
“The quick and dirty answer is that bitters are a potent, alcohol-based flavor concentrate extracting flavor from fruits, berries, roots, barks, flowers, herbs,” says Wolf. “Anything, really, with a focus on improving the balance of your cocktail.”
While the concept of bitters dates back to ancient Egypt, bitters came in vogue during the 19th century (as both a bar ingredient and as a medicinal “cure-all”), saw a steady decline and then, unsurprisingly, made a big comeback in recent years thanks to the craft cocktail movement.
Why should you use bitters in your drinks?
“Bitters are the spices of cocktails,” says Green. “Like spices in cooking, they bring depth of flavor and round sharp edges in cocktails.
Teague concurs: “You wouldn’t eat unseasoned soup, right? Stop drinking unseasoned cocktails.”
What are some bitters to consider for your home bar?
Angostura: “Building in the seasoning analogy, Angostura — with potent notes of cinnamon and cardamom, is the salt. It’s an essential ingredient in many classic cocktails.” –Teague
Peychaud’s: “Peychaud’s has hints of anise and citrus.” If Angostura is the salt, “This is the pepper.” –Teague
Regan’s Orange Bitters: Along with Angostura and Peychaud’s, “These are the bitters that will be called for the vast majority of cocktail recipes. Therefore you will find them the most useful, when trying to recreate your favorite bartenders drink at home.” –Green
Bittermens Scarborough Herbal Savory Bitters: “Magical with gin and brings amazing complexity.” –Wolf
SLO Bitter Co.’s Charred Cedar and Blackstrap Bitters: “They bring a luxurious smoke and piney quality to whiskey drinks and provide great depth and character.” (Your editor sampled them and agrees.) –Wolf
Cocktail Punk Alpino Bitters: “Alpino, as its name suggests, has flavors of the alpine mountains. Pine, in conjunction with herbs like mint and sage are commingled with a light balance of citrus. I like it in a gin and tonic.” –Teague
1821 Havana and Hyde: “Aged in a barrel, it has rich notes of leather and tobacco that remind you of old books. I’ve found great success using them in a brandy sour as they add a heady aroma when dashed on the foamy egg white. Or, simply add a dash to an aged rum old fashioned for deeper complexity.” –Teague
Bitter End Memphis Barbeque: “Smokey chipotle blends with back notes of coffee and cumin to create an authentic savory barbeque flavor. My cocktail New Boots combines them with bourbon and Cio Ciaro (a cola nut amaro) to create a ‘bourbon and Coke at a backyard barbeque’ experience. It’s also easy enough to mix these into your next Bloody Mary for a spicy/savory burst of flavor.” –Teague
Where can I buy bitters?
While bitters are alcoholic, they’re considered non-potable and a grocery item, says Green. “You can often find them in high-end grocery stores. But I would also ask your bartender where to get them. Most major cities have a store that carries bar supplies and bitters.”
A few physical stores (and bitters-centric bars) to check out: Bitters and Bottles (San Francisco), Amor y Amargo (NYC), The Meadow (NYC) and Bar Keeper (Los Angeles).
What are some good recipes that showcase bitters?
The Old Fashioned
By Robin Wolf
2 oz bourbon (I like Old Forester)
.5 oz Turbinado syrup (equal parts Turbinado/unrefined syrup and hot water, dissolved and cooled)
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 dash Orange Bitters
Stir all with ice, strain over large cube and garnish with orange peel express and Luxardo cherry. Says Wolf: “The definition of a cocktail is a libation containing a spirit, water, sugar and bitters, and nothing exemplifies that better than an Old Fashioned.”
The Winters Apple
By Max Green
1.5 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy
1.5 oz Carpano Antica Formula
4 dashes Scrappy’s Lime Bitters
Stir over ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, garnish with a lime twist
The Baltic Trading
By Max Green
1.5 oz Bourbon (I use Wild Turkey)
.75 oz Riga Black Balsam
.75 oz Cocchi Rosa
2 dashes Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters
Stir over ice, serve over ice in a rocks glass, garnish with an orange twist and a brandied cherry.
The Diamond District
By Max Green
1 oz Sancho Infused Wild Turkey 101 Rye
2 oz Carpano Antica Formula
2 dashes Scrappy’s Lime Bitters
Add all ingredients to the mixing glass, stir and strain into a chilled coupe, garnish with a lemon twist. Says Green: “The spice and bright citrus note from the sancho pepper drives those flavors that we all love in a classic Manhattan while remaining lower in ABV than the original. The lime bitters add to the drink and challenge your pallet without overwhelming your senses.”
The Waterproof Watch
By Sother Teague
1.5 oz London Dry Gin
.75 oz Amaro Montenegro
.75 oz Aperol
2 dashes Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters
Stirred and served over ice with an orange twist. Says Teague: “Dale launched his signature bitters in 2012 in collaboration with Ted Breaux of Combier. Big full flavors of baking spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and ginger are reinforced by allspice berries and lingering citrus from dried orange peels. You can also use this bitters as a substitute for Angostura in any classic cocktail to noticeably turn up the dial. I love it in a Manhattan with a spicy rye like Rittenhouse.”
By Sother Teague
1 oz Mancino Rosso sweet Vermouth
.75 oz J. Rieger Cafe Amaro
.5 oz El Dorado 8yr
2 dashes Bittercube Blackstrap
Combine in a double Old Fashioned glass and serve unadorned and neat. “The Blackstrap has fragrant hits of molasses, sassafras and sarsaparilla,” says Teague. “It gives these bitters a broody backbone and thick aroma. It’s tailormade for dark rum cocktails.”
Gin and Tonic
By Sother Teague
2 oz Plymouth Gin
.5 oz Tomr’s Tonic
2 dash Pocket Square bitters
Build in a Collins glass over ice. Top up with seltzer and garnish with a lemon wedge for squeezing. “Pocket Square has a floral and dry hibiscus flavor, with hints of anise and citrus all wrapped up neatly by the bitterness of wormwood,” says Teague. “You can also try it in a classic like the Sazerac or a margarita.”
Angostura photo by Chelsea Nesvig