Last week I talked a bit about the history of bitters; what they are, where they come from, how they’re made, and how they’re used.
Today I’d like to go into some specifics about a few of the different styles and how you can use them at home. There really is no end to what you can do with bitters, but I thought it might be helpful to give you a few basic ideas.
The best known and most frequently used style is still the old standard “aromatic” bitters. This is what most bartenders reach for when creating many of the old school craft cocktails popular today. Everything old is new again, amiright?
The most iconic maker of aromatic bitters is, of course, Angostura. Before the bitters renaissance, if you found any bitters at all behind your local bar, odds are these were the ones. Angostura bitters were named for the Venezuelan city where they were created, but they’ve since moved production to the Caribbean. They’re actually not made from the bark of the Angostura tree, and since the recipe is a tightly guarded secret, no one knows for sure if they ever were.
Perhaps the second most popular producer of aromatic bitters is Peychaud’s, which were originally developed by pharmacist and Creole immigrant Antoine Amédée Peychaud in New Orleans. His family would dispense his curative bitters in Cognac from his pharmacy in the French Quarter, and it wasn’t long before people started asking for Peychaud’s bitters by name at bars throughout the city. Today Peychaud’s are synonymous with the Sazerac cocktail, named for a now defunct brand of cognac, Sazerac de Forge et Fils, that used to make up the Peychaud’s toddy. When phylloxera almost wiped out France’s wine and brandy production cognac was replaced by rye whiskey, which remains the main ingredient in the Sazerac cocktail today.
Each brand of aromatic bitters has their own proprietary blend of ingredients, but they all share a similar flavor profile. For the most part, true to their historic roots, aromatic bitters have a slightly medicinal flavor which, in small doses, pairs really well with a variety of libations and cocktails. Most get their flavor from an infusion of bitter roots, especially gentian root; a blend of warm spices like cinnamon, cardamom, or cloves; and a proprietary mix of herbs and other botanicals such as tamarind, wormwood, or barks. Peychauds has a slightly sweeter flavor than Angostura with hints of anise and licorice, while some other brands have a stronger herbal presence. If you’re looking to try something new, look for aromatic bitters by Hella Bitters, Scrappy’s, or Fee Brothers.
Aromatic bitters can be used in any number of applications from whiskey drinks to champagne cocktails. They’re the key ingredient in many classic cocktails like the Manhattan and old fashioned.
The next most popular style is orange bitters, which primarily get their flavor from the dried zest of bitter-oranges. Orange bitters have been popular as far back as the 1800s. One fact that I found really interesting in my research is that they used to be very popular for flavoring dry martinis. In the 1800s a dry martini referred to the type, not the amount, of vermouth used, and the recipe was usually a half and half mix of vermouth and vodka or gin with some bitters to taste.
Depending on the brand, the flavor of orange bitters can range from dry and aromatic to sweet and fruity. Seville bitter oranges are the most commonly used, but to get a sweeter flavor Fee Brothers uses West Indian orange, the same variety used to make triple sec and curaçao. Traditionally orange bitters feature a healthy dose of spice too. Common ingredients used both in the 19th-century and today include gentian root, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, caraway, or coriander.
Generally, Fee Brothers is considered the sweetest and fruitiest, and the least complex; while Regan’s are zesty fresh and bright, with hints of pepper and honey and a mild spice background; and Angostura Orange has the strongest orangey scent and flavor, but still with a bit of spice in the background. If you want to experiment further, be sure to try Scrappy’s orange, Bittercube’s orange or whiskey barrel aged blood orange, or Fee’s gin barrel aged orange.
Personally I think citrus bitters are a great option if you’re looking for something that goes with everything. Orange are the most common, but you can mix most citrus flavors with almost any alcohol and come up with a great tasting and enjoyable cocktail.
Other Citrus Bitters:
Beyond the traditional orange, there are tons of other citrus varieties to choose from. Hella Bitter’s citrus uses 9 varieties of citrus, and adds spice to give them a traditional “orange bitters” feeling. Lemon bitters are almost as versatile as orange and pair well with whiskey and vodka alike. Fee Brother’s has a lemon variety, and Brooklyn Hemispherical makes both lemon and meyer lemon options.
Grapefruit bitters are a great option if you’re looking to expand your collection, and they pair especially well with tequila drinks. Check out these choices from Scrappy’s, Bittermens, or Fee Brothers.
Bittercube’s Jamaican #2 is a warm and tangy blend of grapefuit, hibiscus, & island spice, and one of my coworker swears it’s the best way to dress up cheap beer.
Another great citrus option that would pair well with tequila, vodka or gin would be Scrappy’s lime.
The fun doesn’t have to stop with citrus flavors either. There are fruity bitters out there for every taste. Cherry bitters by Fee Brothers, Cherry Bark Vanilla by Bittercube, or Spiced Cherry by Woodford Reserve would all be great with bourbon, mixed in a rum and coke, or even on their own with soda water. In the fall try Bar Keep’s apple bitters, or Brooklyn Hemispherical’s apple cider bitters. Also look for plum, peach, or rhubarb by Fee Brothers.
Herbal or floral bitters:
If you’re looking for something a little more delicate, a great option would be some of the single note floral or herbal flavors. Fee brother’s makes a mint flavor that would be great if you don’t feel like muddling fresh mint for your juleps or mojitos. Bar Keep and Scrappy’s both make lavender flavors that are heaven in a vodka lemonade. Bittermens makes a citrus and chamomile flavor they call their Boston Bittahs
If you like a drink with a bit of kick then look for some of the hot and spicy bitters out there. Brooklyn Hemispherical’s Sriracha & Bittermens hellfire habanero shrub would add considerable heat to a bloody mary, or would be great with tequila cocktails like a margarita or paloma. If you’d like to add another layer of flavor with your heat consider Memphis bbq bitters, Thai Bitters, Or Moroccan Bitters by The Bitter End.
Warm Spices and Baking Flavors:
If you like the idea of warm spice but don’t necessarily want the HEAT of a spicy bitter, try something in this category. Bittercube’s Jamaican #1 has allspice, ginger, & black pepper and is ideal with rum. Their blackstrap molasses bitters are excellent in hot cocktails and pair well with rum or whiskey. Fee Brother’s black walnut bitters or Scrappys cardamom bitters would both add a hint of autumnal warm to whiskey cocktails, and would be great in a spiked hot cider. Bittermens Xocolatl mole bitters contains cacao, cinnamon, and spices and is perfect with aged tequila, rum or bourbon, and would add a hint of warm spice to a spiked hot chocolate. Fee Brother’s Aztec chocolate, and Scrappy’s chocolate bitters have a purer cocoa flavor and would be perfect in a white russian.
If Caesars or Bloody Marys are more your style, or if you want an unexpected addition to a gin and tonic, try celery bitters by Fee Brothers or Scrappys. Bittermens also makes a celery shrub that blends the flavors of celery with apples and vinegar, almost like a pickled celery that would, again, be perfect for bloody marys.
This is just a small sampling of the huge variety of bitters available today, with just a few ideas on how to put them to use. Once you find a flavor you like go ahead and experiment trying them in new ways. Many people even use bitters for cooking and baking, not just cocktails. The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination.
*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.