What does it mean when someone talks about the bitters in their cocktail? Do they mean anything with a bitter flavor? Is it a specific brand? Which ones? Let’s start at square one.


How did bitters become popular?

Bitters were initially created in the olden days for medicinal use. In the 1700’s, people thought bitters could cure a number of ailments from digestive issues to kidney failure to erectile dysfunction – so if you had an issue, you drank some bitters. Unfortunately, medicinal bitters aren’t that tasty on their own. So, rather than a straight shot of bitters, people began to consume them with alcohol to mask the taste. Since then, doctors and other smart people have realized that those added benefits weren’t legit after all, but the taste in their cocktails was.



How are bitters used?

To better understand modern bitters, we turn to author and bartender Sammi Katz, who considers them, “the spice rack of the cocktail world.” Basically, they’re added in very small amounts to round out the flavor of a cocktail, like pepper on a steak or salt on some bar peanuts. 



How are bitters made?

Sold in small bottles, bitters require three basic ingredients:

1. One or more bittering agent – The most common is gentian root. Others include (but are not limited to) dandelion root, burdock root, cinchona bark, quassia bark –you get the idea.

2. Botanicals – Nothing is off limits. Cinnamon, lavender, rose petals, walnuts, hibiscus, ginger, chamomile – there’s a wide range of options.

3. A neutral, liquid base – A high-proof alcohol is almost always the choice, as it extracts flavor and has a long shelf life. 


If you’re not in the market to spend your hard-earned time and money on trying all those options, you’re probably wondering what they taste like. Sadly, there’s not a clear blanket answer. All of them are sharp with a strong flavor. What that flavor is really depends on the type of bitters. Angostura bitters are spicy, with hints of cinnamon. Peychaud’s bitters – featured in Sazerac cocktails – are brighter, with hints of orange and cherry. 

A couple of drops are added to balance the flavor profile and balance sweet or sour elements. If you’re like us, you defer to the bartender on which ones go in what drinks. 


What’s your favorite cocktail that uses bitters? Let us know in the comments!