Cocktail Bitters And What They Are All About

If you were to ask me how many different mixed drinks or cocktails there are out there. I’m not sure I could even give you an answer. It seems like there’s a new one every time you turn around. One thing is for certain though. They have a certain taste. Some are sweet, and some are sour, but are there a ton of bitter drinks? Not that I know of. That’s where bitters come in to play.

Why Add Bitters At All?

There are four major tastes that you can detect in your mouth. Salty, Sweet, Sour, and Bitter. When looking at these four tastes, Sweet and Sour seem to be what cocktails taste like for the most part. I don’t know of many salty drinks, except for when you salt the rim or add an olive or something. There are any bitter drinks that I can think of either. There are some beers that are bitter, but not many cocktails.  

Since Cocktails are predominantly Sweet and/or Sour, then bitters are used to help create a more complex taste experience. The bitters help to balance out flavors that may be extremely sour or sweet. It changes the flavor and makes for a new experience with even the most familiar of drinks. 

Bitters consist of botanical ingredients that have an aromatic and tasteful nature like herbs and fruits. Some of the most common ingredients are cascarilla, cassia, gentian, orange peel, and cinchona bark. They also contain alcohol as it serves as a solvent to break down the ingredients as well as a preservative. The alcohol content can vary from one bitter to the next.

A Brief History Of Bitters

The origins of bitters can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. Their use of bitters is very different from the type used in cocktails. They infused herbs in jars of wine in order to create bitters to be used in digestive health. The Middle Ages furthered this practice with Pharmacognosy, which is the study of plants or other natural sources as a possible source of drugs. Digestive bitters are still used today, and they can trace their roots back to those recipes used in the Middle Ages. 

The more common use for bitter has been in alcoholic drinks as we have found other remedies for digestive matters. According to Wikipedia: “By the 19th century, the British practice of adding herbal bitters (used as preventive medicines) to Canary wine had become immensely popular in the former American colonies. By 1806, American publications referenced the popularity of a new preparation termed cocktail, which was described as a combination of “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” And so, Cocktails were born. 

There are some fairly popular bitters such as Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters, and Orange Bitters that had found their way to the mainstream. Cocktail Bitters are typically used for flavoring cocktails by adding it in drops or dashes. In the United States they are classified as alcoholic non-beverage products.

In recent years there has been a boom in the growth of Craft Spirits and Craft Distilleries. This growth has provided for a new opportunity for patrons to try some new types of bitters. There are traditional bitters like Citrus and Grapefruit, but there have also been some pretty risky attempts that have paid off. They now have bitters that are derived from Cumin, Peppers, and even Barbecue Bitter. 

Bitters That You Need At Your Home Bar

Angostura Aromatic – Named for a town in Venezuela, this bitter has been around for 200 hundred years. The bitters pair well with vodka, gin, and whiskey. This is one for those who truly love a bitter drink.

Peychaud’s – This is sweet and aromatic bitter. This one works well vodka, gin, whiskey, and tequila. It has a distinct red color to it as well, which will add a unique aspect to your drinks. 

Regan’s Orange – A sweet citrus bitter that goes with almost everything. There is nothing, well, almost nothing that this bitter doesn’t pair well with. 

The Bitter Truth – This is a company and not just one type of bitter, but they offer the best of the best aromatic, citrus bitters. They are definitely for those who prefer a kick in their drink. Check them out here.

Bitterman’s – This company offers chocolate, melon, habanero, pecan, and a large variety of bitters to choose from. If you have a strong bitter like Angostura or Peychaud’s then these will help enhance those even further. 

Home Recipes For Cocktail / Drink Bitters

You can find more about these recipes and the original ones from here. You can also check out this book from Amazon for more methods and recipes. 

INGREDIENTS – Try one of these three recipes

  • Orange Bitters: 12 parts orange peel, 2 parts gentian, 2 parts cardamom, 2 parts coriander, 1 part allspice, 1 part cloves
  • Lavender Bitters: 20 parts lavender, 6 parts orange, 2 parts vanilla, 1 part ginger
  • Coffee Bitters: 10 parts coffee bean, 3 parts cocoa nib, 2 parts wormwood, 1 part orange, 1 part cinnamon; sweeten to taste with molasses

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Place botanicals in separate jars: Place each botanical (bittering agents or aromatic/flavor agent) in a separate jar. You may wish to chop up or crack ingredients to expose more surface area for better and faster infusion.
  • Cover with liquor: Add liquor to each jar, making sure the botanicals are completely submerged. Cover the jar tightly.
  • Label the jars: Don’t forget to label the jar with the contents and date. You may also wish to write down the measurements you used, either on the label or in separate notes.
  • Shake the jars once a day: Give each jar a good shake, and continue to shake them once a day.
  • Wait for botanicals to infuse: Depending on the botanical, infusing time may range from a day to several weeks. Regularly smell and sample each tincture; it will be ready when it strongly conveys the ingredient. To smell, put a couple drops of the infusion in your palms, rub them together, and hold your hands up to your nose. To taste, put a couple drops in a glass of still or sparkling water — or taste it straight but bear in mind it will be rather intense!
  • Strain: When each tincture is ready, strain out the solids. For finer straining, use a coffee filter.
  • Blend: Now comes the creative part. Using a dropper, pipette, or syringe, start blending the different tinctures together in a small glass or clean bitters bottle. You might use anywhere from a couple drops to a full ounce or two of each tincture. Optionally, you can dilute it with distilled water and/or lightly sweeten it. (Remember to take notes so you can reproduce your bitters recipe if it turns out well!) Try your blend using the smelling and tasting tips in Step 5. Give it a few days or weeks for the flavors to really marry.
  • Bottle: If you didn’t blend your bitters right in the bottle, transfer the mixture to a clean container. It can last for years!

And here are some drink recipes that involve bitters.

Bitter Lemon Cooler 

  • 1 1⁄2 oz Dry vermouth
  • 1 oz Gin
  • 1⁄4 oz Grenadine
  • 1⁄4 oz Fresh lemon juice
  • Bitter lemon soda or lemon-flavored club soda

Add all the ingredients except the soda to a cocktail shaker and fill with ice.

Shake, and strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice.

Top with bitter lemon soda or lemon-flavored club soda and garnish with a lemon wheel.

Old Fashioned

  • 1 1⁄4 oz bourbon
  • 2 bar spoons Simple syrup
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters

Add all ingredients into an Old Fashioned glass with ice and stir gently until the level of the ice and liquid are the same.

Zest an orange peel over the glass and add the peel to the drink as a garnish.

Cheers!

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