If you're stocking an at-home bar and read "bitters" on the list, don't skip it. Just because you don't know what bitters do (yet) doesn't mean you shouldn't have them on hand—anyone who's made an Old Fashioned might recollect that it calls for a sugar cube soaked in a few drops of this potent, herbal tonic.
For mixologists creating new concoctions or tweaking the classics, bitters are a bar mainstay and a good way to add a subtle flavor or bold undertone to a drink. As the mixologist-movement evolves from an exclusive "scene" to a mainstream phenomenon that even your mid-western mother is curious about, so too has the range of flavored bitters evolved. Local and international brewers are creating new tastes and reformulating long-retired recipes, and we've gathered up some facts, tips and concoctions to ease any confusion, or bitterness, on the topic.
A few classic, bitters brands:
1. Angostura—Angostura bitters, with their bafflingly disproportionate label-to-bottle ratio, are the most familiar brand of bitters, and you'd be hard pressed to find even a dive bar without a crusty-capped bottle floating around. Created as a health tonic by a German doctor stationed in South America, the name Angostura actually refers to the town in Venezuela where this trusty brand was first produced (rest assured the formula does not actually contain any angostura tree bark). As for the oversized label on such a small bottle, the story goes that after the family moved the business to Trinidad, the "laid back Caribbean attitude" led to not measuring the labels properly, a present day trademark that back then no one ever bothered to fix. Perhaps they'd been drinking? Regardless, look for the bottle with the screwed up label and check out this recipe from our video series:
Zombie Gut Punch (from Drinks with Alie & Georgia) 10 oz. vodka 4 oz. triple sec 10 dashes Angostura orange bitters 8 oz. fresh squeezed blood orange juice 12 oz. black cherry soda Grenadine, for rim
In a large punch bowl filled with ice, pour vodka, triple sec, bitters, blood orange juice and black cherry soda. Stir. Rim each glass with grenadine before filling with punch mixture, and serve.
2. Peychaud—Similar to Angostura but with a sweeter, more floral body, Peychaud bitters were created by Creole apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. Distributed by the Sazerac Company, they're a key ingredient in the popular New Orleans cocktail of the same name, thought to have originated when the owner of The Sazerac bar opted to use the local druggist's brand of bitters in his new cocktail creation.
We asked George Cossette, owner of Silver Lake Wine, for his favorite classic bitters drink. Although he professes that he's more of a simple "on the rocks" kind of guy, his shop's healthy stock of bitters is proof that he appreciates what bitters can add to a cocktail.
"The only cocktail that I can think of that's completely fallen off the radar is the Pink Gin. It's basically just gin and a dash of bitters, and that was a semi-mundane drink in the 1910s. Peychaud makes a better color on the gin, but the Angostura tastes better." (Cossette also deems Angostura's orange-flavored bitters to be the "across-the-line best and less soda pop-py" brand of bitters than its competitors.)
Below you'll find a classic, bitters cocktail recipe for the elusive Pink Gin:
Pink Gin 2 oz .gin 2-3 dashes bitters
Coat a chilled martini glass with bitters. Pour out excess bitters and add chilled gin. For added flavor, try sour cherry or blood orange bitters.
3. Fee Brothers—Among classic brands, Fee Brothers is becoming a darling on the bitters scene. This Rochester-based company, founded in 1863, whips up an array of flavors like orange, plum, grapefruit, lemon, rhubarb, Aztec chocolate, and celery, each selling for about $6 a bottle. We called up the headquarters, a small company of about 10 people, to ask if they had any recommended uses for their rhubarb bitters and they said, with the cocktail resurgence in such bloom, they couldn't even keep up with adding new recipes to their website as home mixologists seem to be far more adept than they—the creators—are at using their bitters. Taking on the challenge of making a rhubarb beverage, we whipped up a tart take on our favorite pie:
Strawbarb Rhuberry 2 oz. Stawberry Stoli 2 dashes of Fees Bros. rhubarb bitters 2 strawberries 1 sugar cube
Add a sugar cube to the bottom of a shaker, and soak with a few drops of rhubarb bitters. Muddle it with a fresh strawberry, and then add chilled strawberry vodka. Shake together with ice, and pour through a strainer into a chilled glass. Garnish with a fresh strawberry on the rim.
4. Miracle Mile—Louis Anderson started Miracle Mile Bitters Co. in Los Angeles seven years ago after getting passionate about mixology, or "geek cocktail craft." Tinkering with old school classic cocktails, in Anderson's opinion, naturally progresses to tinkering with making one's own ingredients, and bitters were a natural offshoot of that concept. Bitters, much like vanilla extract, contain a fair amount of alcohol (90 proof, in some cases), which means that in order to sell your homemade wares, they need to be manufactured in a fully legally-licensed facility. So much for DIY...
Anderson tells us this regulatory limbo of bitters makes it hard for small manufacturers, such as himself, to distribute as much of his product as he'd like. That's a bummer for us, as his flavors were some of our favorites we tasted. Gingerbread, sour cherry, and his most popular, chocolate/chili are easy muses to creating original cocktails. In fact, some local bars have dedicated entire nights' cocktails to his flavors. For now, you can find his stock at Bar Keeper in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, and on drink menus at hip watering holes such as Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles. One of his favorite recipes, below, was created by David Kupchinsky of Eveleigh in Los Angeles:
The Oaxacon Angel 2 oz. mezcal 1 barspoon agave nectar 2 dashes Castilian Bitters by Miracle Mile Bitters Co.
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled Old Fashioned glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.
5. Bittercube—This Milwaukee-based company was founded by Ira Koplowitz and Nick Kosevich, two cocktail enthusiasts well versed in the classics. With a small array of flavors, like blackstrap and chamomile and cinnamon-essenced Bolivar bitters, Bittercube makes small batches that can put a new spin on a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. They also recommend adding their bitters to beer or sparkling wine to lend a pop of flavor. One suggestion they offer is so simple, we had to share:
Bittercube's "Enhanced Beer" 13 drops of Bittercube orange bitters 16 oz. wheat beer or pilsner
Directions: Open beer. Add bitters. Drink beer. Repeat.
6. Bitter Truth—Having opened shop in 2006, Germany's Bitter Truth brand is one of the pricier on the market, at about $20 a bottle. But since just a dash or two is enough for most cocktails, their spicy cardamom-infused Creole or celery bitters are worth it to kick up a Sazerac or make a standard bloody Mary more memorable. But if you can't decide, opt for their travel pack, which retails for about the price of a full bottle of bitters and offers 5, 20-ml tastings, including: celery, Creole, orange, old time aromatic and Professor Jerry Thomas, the latter featuring angostura bark and dedicated to a well-known 19th century barkeep. Once you get your mitts on their array, start with their recipe for an even better brandy beverage:
Improved Brandy Cocktail 2 oz. cognac 3 dashes Creole bitters 2 dashes absinthe .5 oz. sugar syrup
Stir in mixing glass with ice and strain into a chilled tumbler or cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
7. Bitter Tears—We have three words for you: Peppercorn. Bacon. Bitters. We weren't kidding when we told you that bitters creators were getting more inventive with their flavors. Bitter Tears is based in Highland Park in Los Angeles, and they add some levity to their apothecary-themed bottling with tonics bearing names like "Ms. Piggy" for the above-mentioned marriage of bacon and peppercorn. Also on their product roster: a blood orange and ginger infusion with notes of cardamom and anise which they've coined "Lucille" after everyone's favorite fiery redheaded funny girl (no, not Alie). We loved the punchy cherry and vanilla notes in the "Lolita," and are drooling to try the "Gyspy" (tamarind flavor) with our own home-infused jalapeno tequila. Meanwhile, you can try this concoction:
KiKi's Paris 4 oz. prosecco 1 oz. gin 1 oz. St. Germain, 2 dashes Bitter Tears lavender bitters
Add all ingredients to a chilled glass and stir.
8. Bitter End—While tasting an assortment of bitters, we both opted for a few straight drops of hand crafted Santa Fe-based Bitter End products. Moments later, we were rendered speechless, not only from the unique savory flavors of their Memphis Barbeque, lemongrass-infused Thai and Jamaican Jerk blends, but also because they were so spicy we were cursing ourselves for ever being born and trying these tonics straight. They're powerful stuff. That being said, this company, founded in 2010, also brews up Mexican Mole and Moroccan Bitters, the latter bearing notes of coriander and mint. If reading this is making you hungry, consider whipping up their homage to the smokey South:
Deep South 2 oz. rum 4 drops Bitter End Memphis Barbeque Bitters ¾ oz sweet vermouth 1 lime wedge for garnish
Shake all ingredients with ice in a shaker. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lime wedge.
9. Underberg—Made in Germany since the late 1800s and packaged in cute little brown paper-wrapped bottles with charming Old World-esqe graphics, Underberg touts itself as a hangover cure due to its herbal extracts, vitamin B1, and natural antioxidants. Or, as a post meal digestif, the array of aromatic herbs (which are a well-guarded company secret) aids in digestion, which is helpful when you've imbibed in one too many street vendor bacon wrapped schnitzel (or "Schmutz Dogs," as we hope they call them in Deutschland). Although some prefer the slightly medicinal, cinnamon-tinged drink mixed with soda water or cola, the folks at Underberg suggest their product be served straight-up between 44° and 66° F, and the packaging blatantly commands that the product is "not to be sipped." Underberg is what's known as a "potable" bitters, which contains less alcohol than a "non-potable" (meaning they're not meant to be consumed on their own) variety, so it's safe to have in larger quantities than the normal few dashes you find of its counterpart.
10. Boutique bitters—Starting your own bourbon distillery? Not easy. But many people obsessed with old-timey cocktail culture have become players in the mixology world by brewing up boutique bitters. Angostura, Peychaud's and Fee Brothers were the only go-to, but in the last few years new brands have popped up to add some stiff, bitter competition. Bonus: opening your own company leaves the door wide open to puns. Just ask the owners of Bitter Truth, Bitter End and Bitter Tears.
Once your palette is versed in aromatic nuances, your pockets are stuffed with bitters bottles, and your brain is reeling from, uh, flavor, you may need to line up a tonic to guard against hangovers. While we don't recommend going straight "hair of the dog" into a Bloody Mary, we can endorse the medicinal benefits of a bitters elixir to calm the stomach. A few dashes of bitters in a tall glass of soda water is a tried and true remedy in the barkeep world. Or, you can step it up and down an Underberg.
Now that you're armed with plenty of recipes—and a hangover cure—you'd best abandon all bitterness and get mixing.
Alie Ward and Georgia Hardstark met at a dive bar in the L.A. neighborhood of Echo Park and write the cocktail-focused website Alie and Georgia. Previously, Alie shared her love for art, trends, restaurants, and nightlife as a Los Angeles Times staff writer and as an on-air correspondent for KTLA-TV. Georgia has written for publications like Anthem magazine and contributes the This Recording. Join them online as they shake up the cocktail scene with the second season of their Web series, Drinks with Alie & Georgia, on Food2.com.