Smell is a major aspect of taste, so it’s time to start paying more attention to cocktail bitters. These fragrant additions can make your favorite mixed drink bloom out of the glass, and every home bartender should have a small but reliable arsenal at their disposal.
For the record, bitters are what they claim to be: Bitter-flavored concoctions typically made with wildly aromatic botanicals. They have a long history of use, initially with medicinal purposes before becoming digestifs and cocktail enhancers. In addition to high proof alcohol, bitters are made with a witches’ brew of seemingly exotic ingredients like cassia, cinchona bark, and gentian peel — and countless others, depending on the overall flavor of the product. Behind the bar, cocktail bitters have been used to lift the flavors of famed drinks since the 1860s.
Don’t be fooled by the diminutive vessels cocktail bitters usually inhabit as they pack a potent punch, despite the relatively tiny package. They’re not just for the most complicated drinks, as classic and somewhat straightforward cocktails like a Manhattan, Sazerac, or whisky sour can attest to. And they’re not just for alcoholic drinks, as a brisk and refreshing soda and bitters suggests.
When looking to stock up on some bitters essentials for your home bar, consider the following:
Angostura Aromatic Cocktail Bitters
The Beatles of cocktail bitters, Angostura is responsible for hit after classic hit. It launched in the 1820s in Venezuela and ultimately moved to Trinidad and Tobago, where it’s based today. The secret recipe features gentian, herbs, and spices, giving it a soothing, kitchen spice cabinet-like quality. It’s a fantastic addition to an Old Fashioned as well as a gin and tonic, imparting feel-good flavors like dried cinnamon and clove as well as heightened aromatics. Countless cocktails, from Rob Roy to a Manhattan, depend on Angostura’s distinctive personality.
Fee Brothers Black Walnut Cocktail Bitters
Fee Brothers are responsible for an acclaimed family of bitters, spanning the entire spectrum of flavors. The black walnut is among the best, with a pronounced flavor profile unlike any other. Showing nutty notes, a bittersweet complexion, and a kiss of forest floor, it’s the perfect sidekick to bourbon and a great way to take a drink like a mint julep in an intriguing new direction. A few drops also do great with coffee and espresso-based drinks as well as ice cream.
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
Somewhat of a newcomer within the field, Regan’s Orange bitters have risen to deserved esteem since it was first developed in the 90s. Like so many bitters, this elixir relies on very particular ingredients, like Sevilla orange peel, coriander, anise, burnt sugar set in alcohol, and more. The zest of citrus shines through like a warm ray of sun, alongside the peppery punch of caraway and the warn, nutty flavors of coriander. We adore it with drinks that feature Campari and vermouth (Negroni, anyone?) and we like how it can wake up tamer spirits like vodka.
Peychaud’s Aromatic Cocktail Bitters
Another classic and bar counter mainstay is Peychaud’s. It goes all the way back to the 1830s, of Creole descent in the city of New Orleans. It also features gentian, known for its green color and bitter flavor profile, along with woodsy elements like mint and black licorice. Given its bayou heritage, it’s no surprise that it’s tailor-made for classic French-American cocktails like the Vieux Carre and Sazerac. Never overwhelming and eager to complement a host of drinks, Peychaud’s is a bitters you don’t want to be stranded without.