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What Are Bitters? We Explain

Bitters are a classic cocktail ingredient, and they can be found in nearly every bar and nightclub around the world. People have been adding bitter ingredients and flavors to alcoholic beverages since the time of the ancient Egyptians, but our modern concept of bitters was invented in the early 1800s as medicine for relieving stomach pain.

Many bitters companies closed during the American Prohibition era and the ingredient was almost lost forever, but in recent years, mixologists and craft cocktail makers have brought bitters back to prominence. Due to the popularity and versatility of bitters, it is essential for bartenders to learn what they are, what types are available, and why to use them in drinks.

What Are Bitters?

Bitters are a liquid ingredient with a bitter flavor that are primarily used in cocktails and alcoholic drinks. They are created by infusing bark, herbs, fruit peels, flowers, roots, and other ingredients in alcohol, and there are a variety of flavors that you can create. When added to cocktails, bitters are measured in "dashes," but the amount of a dash can differ depending on the bottle. Typically, a dash of bitters is 6-8 drops or 1/8th of a teaspoon.

Difference Between Digestive Bitters and Cocktail Bitters

What are bitters

There are many varieties of bitters, and the types of bitters have unique flavors and are used for different purposes. Before we get into the types of flavored bitters, you should first understand the two main categories of bitters and what they're used for.

Digestive Bitters

Digestive bitters are popular in Europe but are not as prominent in the United States or Canada. Rather than being used as an ingredient, digestive bitters are drunk straight or on the rocks, and they are usually served after a meal has finished. The purpose of digestive bitters, also known as digestifs, is to help you digest your meal.

There is another variety of digestives, known as aperitifs, which come before a meal but serve the same purpose of helping digestion. There are a variety of popular digestive bitters, but some of the most famous are Amaro, Campari, Jaegermeister, and Unicum.

Cocktail Bitters

Most people in North America are more familiar with cocktail bitters. This type of bitters is much more concentrated and has a very strong bitter flavor. And, rather than being drunk straight, cocktail bitters are used as an ingredient in cocktails and mixed drinks, most famously in Manhattans and Sazeracs. Cocktail bitters are very versatile, and there are many different varieties and flavor profiles.

Different Types of Cocktail Bitters

Among cocktail bitters, there are plenty of different flavors to choose from, and mixologists are constantly creating new and interesting options. Here are some of the most popular categories and flavors:

cocktail bitters
  • Aromatic: Aromatic bitters are the largest category of cocktail bitters, and they are the ones that most people are familiar with. Aromatic bitters are flavored with herbs, spices, and barks, which gives them a strong aroma, hence the name. This type of bitters is one of the oldest varieties, and it's required for many traditional cocktail recipes. Angostura bitters, which are one of the most popular varieties, are aromatic bitters.
  • Citrus: Citrus bitters are the second most popular type of bitters, and they are used in a variety of cocktail recipes. Among citrus bitters, orange is the most popular flavor, but there are other options like lemon and grapefruit, as well.
  • Herbal: This is one of the most varied categories of bitters in terms of flavor and aroma. Tarragon, thyme, and lavender are some of the most popular types of herbal bitters.
  • Nut: Nut bitters are a relative new invention, but they are growing in popularity, especially among adventurous bartenders and mixologists. Two of the main nut-flavored bitters are chocolate and coffee, which, while they aren't nuts themselves, have a dark and roasted flavor that is similar to other nuts.

Why Use Bitters?

whiskey bitters

Bitters are a versatile ingredient that should be on the shelf in every bar and nightclub. But why should you use them in your cocktails? Here are a few reasons why bitters are essential for every bar:

  1. Bitters add complexity to your drinks. Adding bitters to a cocktail doesn't necessarily mean it will have a strong bitter flavor. Instead, bitters help accentuate other tastes, like sourness or sweetness, and give your drink more depth of flavor.
  2. They're a necessary ingredient for many popular cocktails. Some drinks like the Manhattan, the Sazerac, or an Old Fashioned won't have the same delicious and complex flavor without at least a dash of bitters.
  3. Bitters have health benefits. Just like digestive bitters, the cocktail variety is good for your stomach and can aid with digestion.

What Are the Major Bitters Brands?

Choosing a brand of bitters can be a difficult choice, and it depends mostly on what kind of cocktail you want to make because the different brands can have vastly different flavor profiles. And while there are now hundreds of brands and types of bitters to choose from, there are four major brands that you should be familiar with and have stocked in your bar or restaurant.

Aromatic bitters

  1. Angostura Bitters: Angostura is the oldest brand of bitters, dating back to the early 1800s. This company specializes in aromatic bitters, and their bottles feature an easily recognizable oversized label. Angostura bitters are a necessary ingredient for creating cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.
  2. Peychaud's Bitters: Peychaud's are an American-made bitters that were invented in Louisiana in the 1800s, and they are a classic ingredient in Cajun cooking and classic cocktail recipes. Peychaud's bitters are an essential ingredient in making a traditional Sazerac cocktail.
  3. Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6: Regan's is a relative newcomer to the scene, as they started in the 1990s. The brand was started when a New York City couple decided to make better orange bitters. Their Orange Bitters No. 6 are considered some of the best citrus bitters on the market, and they can be used in a wide variety of cocktails.
  4. Bittermens Bitters: Bittermens is also a new bitters company that sprang up from the craft cocktail movement. Unlike classic brands like Angostura and Peychaud's, Bittermens is attempting to shake up the industry by creating new and unique bitters flavors, such as Mexican mole, cranberry, and orange cream. Their bitters are perfect for creative mixologists and bartenders who want to experiment with new flavors.

Bitters are a popular ingredient used in a variety of cocktails, and because of their popularity, it's important that bartenders and restaurant owners learn what they are, the different types, what they're used for, and why they should be used in recipes.

Posted in: Foodservice Trends | Bars & Breweries | By Richard Traylor
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