How to Enhance Your Cocktails With Bitters: The History of and Types of Bitters

If you’re newly into crafting your own cocktails, you might not have yet dipped your toe into using cocktail bitters yet. However, we’re here to tell you you’ve got to try them. Cocktail bitters open up diverse flavors and complexity for your drinks. Today, we’re going to chat about what bitters are, the different types of bitters, and look at the best cocktail bitters. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

What Are Cocktail Bitters?

Cocktail bitters are a special cocktail ingredient that can add immense flavor and character to your mixed drinks. Cocktail bitters are generally made with a neutral spirit that soaks in a combination of spices, fruit pieces, and even herbs. There are many different kinds of bitters (which we will cover later), and some are more popular than others. In essence, they are a bitter, alcoholic compound that gets dashed into cocktails to add tons of flavor and complexity.

A Brief History of Bitters

Did you know that bitters were originally a type of medicine? That’s right; in the early 19th century, bitters were concocted as a form of patent medicine. They were believed to cure various ailments, from digestive issues to anxiety. It wasn’t until later that their use transitioned from medicine to cocktail component. This transition sparked the beginning of their exciting journey in mixology.

Bitters in Modern Mixology

In recent years, bitters have experienced a resurgence in the world of mixology (and we aren’t complaining!). Modern bartenders, and at-home mixers alike, are incorporating bitters into innovative cocktails that really do push the boundaries of flavor. Mixologists are exploring new ways to use bitters, creating drinks that are not just delicious but also visually stunning. This contemporary revival of bitters is a testament to their enduring appeal.

What Are the Different Types of Bitters?

In the world of mixology, bitters are often overlooked, shoved to the back shelf of a bar cart or forgotten in the depths of a cluttered pantry. However, when used properly, these unassuming concoctions can play a pivotal role in crafting cocktails, adding depth, complexity, and balance to a myriad of drinks. Let’s take a look at the different types you’ll encounter:

Aromatic Bitters

Aromatic bitters are the most common type of bitters used in cocktails. They are typically characterized by their spicy, herbal, and sometimes citrusy notes. Examples of aromatic bitters include Angostura bitters, Peychaud’s bitters, and Regan’s Orange bitters.

Orange Bitters

Orange bitters are another essential type of bitters, particularly for classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Margarita. They provide a bright, citrusy flavor that compliments spirits and other ingredients. Examples of orange bitters include Regans’ Orange bitters, Fee Brothers Orange bitters, and The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters.

Digestive Bitters

Digestive bitters are traditionally consumed after a meal to aid in digestion. They are typically made with a blend of herbs and spices that have purported digestive benefits. Examples of digestive bitters include Aperol, Campari, and Fernet Branca.

Other Bitters

In addition to these common types, there are countless other varieties of bitters available, each with its unique flavor profile. These include chocolate bitters, coffee bitters, floral bitters, and many more.

The Key Ingredients in Bitters

As we mentioned above, the primary ingredients in bitters are botanicals, spices, and herbs. These components vary widely, and their selection defines the bitters’ flavor profile. Some common botanicals include gentian, quinine, and wormwood. Spices like cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom add warmth and depth to the mix. Meanwhile, herbs like thyme, lavender, and chamomile contribute an herbal complexity to the bitters.

The Science Behind Bitters

Bitters work their magic on your palate by stimulating taste receptors. They trigger the bitter taste receptors on the tongue, which can enhance the perception of other flavors in a cocktail. 

Bitterness can also help balance the sweetness and acidity in a drink, creating a well-rounded flavor profile. This is why bitters are considered the bartender’s secret weapon for crafting exceptional cocktails.

10 Classic Cocktails with Bitters

Some of the most iconic cocktails wouldn’t be the same without the addition of bitters. The Old Fashioned, a timeless favorite, relies on aromatic bitters for its distinctive character. The Manhattan, a cocktail with a storied history, features aromatic bitters as well. These classics demonstrate how bitters have been enhancing cocktail flavors for generations.

The Old Fashioned

If there had to be a single cocktail that just screams “bitters!” it’s the Old Fashioned. It’s a timeless classic that earned its name honestly.

  1. Toss a few dashes of Angostura bitters onto a sugar cube in a lowball glass. Muddle the sugar cube, dashes of bitters, and a few dashes of water until the sugar has dissolved.
  2. Fill the glass with ice and add 1 ½ oz bourbon.
  3. Stir and garnish with an expressed orange peel.

The Manhattan

This is another very classic cocktail that most everyone has experienced at some point. It’s kind of a martini-like twist on the Old Fashioned, but it works.

  1. Into a mixing glass with ice, add 2 oz rye whiskey, 1 oz sweet vermouth, and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters. Stir well.
  2. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with brandied cherries and/or a lemon twist.

The Sazerac

There isn’t much more to be said about the Sazerac cocktail. We’ve mentioned it in so many of our spirits blogs. It’s an incredibly popular cocktail that you’ve probably already tried. However, it’s a good poster child for cocktails made with bitters, so it’s made the list!

  1. Rinse an old fashioned or lowball glass with absinthe and discard the rest.
  2. Fill the glass with crushed ice.
  3. To another glass, add 1 ¾ oz cognac and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters. Stir with ice.
  4. Discard everything (including the ice) from the first glass, and strain the contents of the second glass into the first, now empty, glass.
  5. Add a lemon peel for a garnish, expressing it over the surface.

The Dark ‘n’ Stormy

This one uses dark rum to create a unique flavor profile – it’s a lot like a brown sugar vibe you’ll get from it, but it’s balanced out by the bitters and your lime garnish. It’s really good, so give it a try.

  1. Pour 2 oz rum over ice in a highball glass. 
  2. Top off with ginger beer (preferably a nice, smooth ginger beer to limit the spice factor).
  3. Squeeze in some of the juice from a lime wedge, then toss it into the drink.
  4. Finish off the drink with 2 dashes of spicy bitters, and add another lime wedge or peel as a garnish.

The Japanese Cocktail

You might not be as familiar with this one unless you have been to a specialty bar or restaurant that serves them. This is a delicious cocktail that’s been around since 1862!

  1. To a lowball glass with ice, add 2 oz brandy, ½ oz Orgeat syrup, and ¼ oz Bogart’s Bitters. 
  2. Stir with a spoon and garnish with a lemon peel. That’s it!

The Negroni

This is a really popular cocktail that you may have even had before without realizing it had bitters! The negroni, in fact, has two different types of bitters in it.

  1. Combine equal measurements of gin, vermouth, and campari. 1 oz each will give you approximately “one drink.”
  2. Stir the ingredients in a lowball glass with ice, then garnish with an orange peel (express it over the top of your cocktail, too).

The Right Hand

This fun cocktail experiments with chocolate bitters. If you’re a fan of the bite of dark chocolate, this one’s for you.

  1. Stir the following ingredients in a mixing glass with ice: 1 ½ oz Añejo Rum, 1 oz red vermouth, 1 oz Campari, 2 dashes chocolate bitters.
  2. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with a slice of orange.

The Bitter Sour

This is a fun sour cocktail that uses “digestive” bitters. This gives the Bitter Sour a really unique flavor that you can’t really get in other sour cocktails.

  1. Crack an egg and put just the white into a cocktail shaker – don’t add ice yet.
  2. Add 2 oz digestive bitters, 1 oz simple syrup, and 1 oz citrus juice (your choice – experiment to see what you like best).
  3. Shake vigorously so that the egg gets all frothy.
  4. Then, add ice, and shake until cold.
  5. Double strain your drink into a margarita or martini glass, then garnish with a citrus slice or peel.

The Reno

This one is an interesting take on the flavors of amaro. It’s hard to explain the flavor of this cocktail, you kind of just have to experience it for yourself. It’s sophisticated, yet complex.

  1. Throw the following ingredients between two halves of a shaker: 1 oz Amaro or Montenegro, ¾ oz Gentian Liqueur / Suze, ¾ White Americano Quinquina / Cocchi Bianco, and ¼ oz Italicus Liqueur.
  2. Strain into an ice-filled tumbler like an old fashioned glass. Garnish with a lemon, lime, or orange peel – whatever strikes your fancy.

The Blushing Monk

What a name for a cocktail, right? This interesting drink is made mainly of bitters, so prepare yourself beforehand.

  1. Shake ⅔ oz Bénédictine D.O.M., ⅔ oz Aperol, ⅓ oz Suze, ½ oz Lillet Blanc, 1 egg white, and 1 dash Angostura bitters with ice in a cocktail shaker.
  2. Strain back into the shaker and shake without ice until the mixture froths up.
  3. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a lemon peel.

Can You Make Your Own Bitters?

Adventurous mixologists might even be interested in crafting homemade bitters. By using a base spirit, botanicals, spices, and herbs, you can create your signature bitters with unique flavor combinations. Experimenting with different ingredients and aging methods allows you to personalize your bitters to suit your taste and style. Here are a few ideas:

Aromatic Bitters:

If you’d like a homemade aromatic bitters of your own, we recommend the following recipe:

The Spruce Eats | Aromatic Bitters Recipe

Citrus Bitters:

For a more citrus-heavy homemade bitters, check out this recipe:

Build the Bottle Liqueur | Citrus Bitters Liqueur Recipe DIY

Chocolate Bitters:

For a fun and exciting bitters recipe that you can experiment with in your cocktails, here’s a fun recipe:

The Spruce Eats | Chocolate Bitters Recipe

And So Many More

You can find tons of recipes online and even experiment with your own recipes. What are your favorite flavors to add to bitters?

Pairing Bitters with Food

While bitters are mainly known for their role in cocktails, their applications extend beyond the bar. Bitters can be paired with various dishes to enhance the dining experience. For example, citrus bitters can brighten up a seafood dish, while herbal bitters can add depth to a savory sauce. Pairing bitters with food is an exciting and unexplored frontier that can elevate your culinary adventures.

Where Do I Find Cocktail Bitters?

If you’re eager to explore the world of bitters and start experimenting with them in your cocktails and culinary creations, you’ll need to know where to find them. Bitters can be purchased from various sources, including liquor stores, specialty stores, and online retailers. Popular brands like Angostura, Peychaud’s, and Fee Brothers offer a wide range of bitters to choose from.

Distillery Nearby: Find Craft, Local Spirits to Use in Your Cocktails with Cocktail Bitters

Looking to elevate your cocktail game? Look no further than your local distillery. Craft distilleries are popping up all over the country, producing high-quality spirits that are perfect for crafting delicious cocktails. And what’s more, most local distilleries offer tours and tastings, so you can learn about the process of making spirits and sample their products.

To find a distillery near you, check out our by-state distillery directory. Once you’ve found a distillery that you’re interested in, head over for a tour and tasting. You’ll be amazed by the variety of spirits that are being produced locally.

Visit Our By-State Distillery Directory Today →

And don’t forget to stock up on some cocktail bitters!

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