On cocktail lists at bars and restaurant, you’re more than likely to see bitters at least once on the menu. Despite the fact that bitters have been around for centuries, a staple for drinks like the Manhattan, not everyone is familiar with them. Originally used as an herbal medicine, bitters were used as a cure-all. Since alcoholic concoctions were also used to treat different ills in the good ol’ days, the line was easily blurred. The word bitters is in the first printed use of the word “cocktail,” which referred to a drink containing spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. Unfortunately, between the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and Prohibition, bitters faded out of use for many years. But, since everything that was old is becoming new again, it’s no surprise that bitters are experiencing a revival on the drink scene.
If you know anything about bitters, you probably recognize Angostura. One of the oldest makers of bitters, the original mixture was made of roots, bark, and spices. They took their name from the Venezuelan city of Angostura (now Cuidad Bolivar). The Angostura recipe is a closely guarded secret—locked in a vault and only known to five employees. While Angostura has become a household name, they’re not without competition. Peychaud’s in New Orleans, Scrappy’s in Seattle, and Hella Bitters in NYC are also well known for their bitters.
The original bitters may have been simple, but like every other alcohol on the market, bitters manufacturers are experimenting with new flavors and infusions. Angostura has Angostura Orange and recently released a liqueur based on their bitters called Amaro di Angostura. Scrappy’s, boasts a wide variety of flavors, from their flagship lavender to celery and chocolate bitters. Hella Bitters carries the traditional aromatic and orange flavors along with smoked chili bitters. Whether the stranger flavors will last remains to be seen, but it’s clear that bitters are booming—and that they’re here to stay.
Try your hand at making your own bitters cocktail—created by cocktail guru Sother Teague and Tobin Ludwig, founder of Hella Bitters—with this recipe.