what are bitters

bitters for beginners, part II

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.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker

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.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker
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.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker
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:
bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker
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’sBittermens, 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.

Fruit Bitters:
bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker
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 plumpeach, or rhubarb by Fee Brothers.

Herbal or floral bitters:
bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker
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

Spicy Bitters:
bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker
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:
bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker
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.

Celery Bitters:
bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker
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.


bitters for beginners, part I

So, I’ve developed a little obsession with bitters lately and I thought I might share it with you.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker

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 for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker

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.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker

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.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker

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.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker

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.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker

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.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker

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.

bitters for beginners | Brooklyn Homemaker

*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.