So, I’ve developed a little obsession with bitters lately and I thought I might share it with you.
If you’re not familiar with bitters, they’re basically a bitter or bittersweet infusion of botanical ingredients, usually in a mix of water and alcohol, and sometimes, glycerine. Although many varieties were originally created for medicinal purposes, the main function of bitters today is a flavoring agent for cocktails. Much like adding spices to a meal, bitters serve to add depth, complexity, and flavor to drinks.
There are actually two kinds of bitters on the market today. First, there are digestive (or potable) bitters that can be consumed on their own, some of the more popular varieties being Campari, Aperol, or Fernet. What I’ll be discussing today though are cocktail bitters, which are what most people think of when they hear the word. These are usually used as a flavoring agent for alcoholic drinks, but can also be mixed with soda water, or any number of liquids. Some people even like to use bitters to flavor dressings, sauces, or baked goods. I myself have had great luck flavoring creme anglaise with lavender bitters.
Bitters may have been around as long ago as ancient Egypt, but they were further developed from the middle ages through the renaissance when the practices of alcohol distillation and making plant-based medicines were both widely practiced. Many brands of bitters sold today still reflect herbal remedies and tonic preparations that can be traced back to renaissance era traditions.
One of the most well-known brands, Angostura bitters, were created in Venezuela in 1824 by a physician who originally intended them as a cure-all for sea sickness and stomach ailments, and as a stimulant to keep malaria patients active and healthy. Many people still swear that a few dashes of these bitters in soda water is a great way to settle an upset stomach.
No one knows for sure when bitters made the leap into cocktails, but it may have all started with people adding spirits and sugar to medicinal bitters to make them more palatable. It seems that they really did need just a spoonful of sugar (and booze) to help the medicine go down.
By the 19th century, the practice of adding medicinal bitters to fortified wine was so widespread in Britain that it made its way across the Atlantic to the American colonies. As early as 1806, publications were referring to bitters as one of the essential ingredients in a new alcoholic beverage called a “cocktail”. The recipe, as printed in Hudson, New York’s Balance & Columbian Repository, called for four ingredients, “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” The popularity of bitters grew steadily through the early 20th century, and certain varieties of bitters became synonymous with specific cocktail recipes.
The popularity and availability of bitters came to a screeching halt when prohibition launched with the passing of the Volstead Act in 1919. A few bitters were able to survive this dark age in American history though, because some manufacturers were based outside the US; while some others, like Fee Brothers, used glycerine instead of alcohol to keep from being shut down. Speakeasies even started using bitters as a way to mask the off flavors of home-made bathtub gin and bootleg hooch. When prohibition was repealed many of the old bitters companies started producing again, but things took another turn for the worse as consumer tastes and drinking habits changed in the 1950s and 60s. This was too much for many companies who were still having a hard time recovering from prohibition and the depression, and most bitters varieties all but disappeared in this era. There are only a few brands left today that have lasted straight through since the 1800s under the same name.
Many people credit revered mixologist and author Gary Regan with helping move the recent bitters renaissance forward. After researching and experimenting with century-old recipes for long-gone styles of cocktail bitters, he introduced his Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 in 2005. In less than a decade, the popularity of bitters (and old school craft cocktails) has exploded, and there are now hundreds of varieties of bitters on the market. Many of the current brands got their start with bitters enthusiasts experimenting with their own speciality bitters at home, and now some companies, like Hella Bitter, are working to develop DIY bitters kits for home use. Many brands are reviving old styles and “lost” recipes, while others are using old techniques to introduce new varieties like mole, grapefruit, black walnut, and sriracha.
Traditionally bitters are made by infusing alcohol with different botanical ingredients, but some companies also add glycerine to their bitters. Glycerine is a simple sugar alcohol compound that is colorless and flavorless. Bitters made with glycerine are generally cheaper because you can use inexpensive extracts, thin them out with water and alcohol, and use the glycerine to hold the flavors together and keep them shelf stable. It’s a much quicker process but produces a flatter, less complexly flavored bitter. While glycerine based bitters do have some alcohol in them, they have significantly less than traditional “craft” bitters. Glycerine can also add a bit of a waxy mouthfeel to a cocktail if too much bitters are used. This is not to say that glycerine based bitters are not as good as traditional bitters, it’s just that there’s a significant difference in their intensity and utility. Craft bitters tend to be more expensive because they’re usually made from higher quality ingredients and have a stronger, purer, more concentrated flavor. Since they’re made from alcohol they don’t affect the mouthfeel of your drink, and their highly concentrated flavor means they’re used very sparingly and will last longer.
If you’re new to the world of bitters, and you’re curious about them or would like to start building a collection for your home bar, the best way to find out what you like is to taste some. Aromatic and orange bitters are the most commonly used styles and, along with many of the newer citrus flavors, they’re the most versatile when it comes to their utility. There are plenty of brands and styles to choose from, so if you’re not sure what you’d like, go to your local bar and see if they’ll let you taste what they have. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a store in your area, like Whisk, that will let you sample bitters before taking the plunge, all the better. That way you can familiarize yourself with a variety of different flavors, taste the differences between certain brands, and choose what will work best for you.
There is no end to the different styles and varieties on the market today, so experiment with them and have fun. Just think of what you normally like to drink, and odds are that someone out there is making a style that corresponds to your favorite tipple or mixer. Get creative! That’s what building a collection of bitters is all about. You can play with flavors, throw things together, see what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s all about personal taste and there’s no rules that dictate what you can and can’t do. It’s just like building a collection of liquor for your home bar. Just go with what you like.
There are far too many varieties of bitters on the market for me to list them all, but check back next week for part II of bitters for beginners, and I’ll outline a basic guide to a few popular styles, and give you a few simple ideas on how to use them.
*This post was written in collaboration with whisk, a store with an extensive cocktail section and one of the largest collections of bitters in NYC.