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Cocktail bitters 101: Everything you need to know about the ingredients that will make your drinks as good as the pros

What are bitters, exactly?

Cocktail bitters

Have you ever enjoyed a Manhattan, an old-fashioned, or a Sazerac? Besides whiskey, all these drinks have one thing in common: cocktail bitters. The first two aren’t complete without a few dashes of Angostura bitters, and the latter isn’t ready without some Louisiana classic Peychaud’s bitters. If you’re an avid home mixologist, you know all about the benefits of cocktail bitters, but others don’t know what they’re missing.

Since we’re only at the beginning of how important bitters are to a well-constructed cocktail, let’s take a deep dive into this mysterious ingredient. It’s found on home bar carts from Temecula to Tampa, but what do you really know about it?

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What are bitters?

You might be wondering why that tiny, old-timey-looking bottle is a necessary part of your home bar. In the simplest terms, cocktail bitters (there are other bitters sold as aperitifs and digestifs) are highly concentrated spirits that are packed with flavor from various botanicals, herbs, spices, and fruits. That’s right, you might not realize that the tiny bottle of flavor you’re adding to your favorite cocktail contains alcohol as well, and it’s not a small amount either. On average, cocktail bitters have between 35-45% ABV. But since you’re only adding a few dashes, you likely don’t notice the extra alcohol.

Bitters begin as neutral alcohol. It’s then infused with various flavors. This includes cardamom, cloves, gentian, orange peels, cassia, and various other herbs and spices. The first well-known brand, Angostura, was created in the 1800s and is still going strong today. Just like with many spirits, some bitters were originally created not to be cocktail ingredients, but as a medicine.

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The benefits of cocktail bitters

Even with the above information, you still might be wondering why cocktail bitters are such an important cocktail ingredient. Sure, your gin & tonic is fine without them, and your rum and cola don’t seem to need any other ingredients. But, in the simplest terms, cocktail bitters add flavor, bitterness, and balance and can help even out your cocktail by elevating other flavors. There are a lot of benefits to adding a few dashes from that tiny bottle. We haven’t even gotten to the other benefits. Since they are used as a digestif, drinking a cocktail containing cocktail bitters can aid in digestion after a heavy meal.

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Popular types of bitters

Far and away, the most popular cocktail bitter is Angostura. Although the recipe for this popular brand is a secret, it’s known for its spicy, bitter flavor and as the base for some of the most popular cocktails ever created.

Other popular cocktail bitters include (among countless others):

  • Peychaud’s
  • Regans’ Orange Bitters
  • The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters
  • Hella Cocktail Company Aromatic Bitters
  • Scrappy’s Celery Bitters

How to use cocktail bitters

Using cocktail bitters to elevate your drink is surprisingly easy. If you’re looking for an easy answer on how to use them, you simply add a few dashes to your cocktail to turn the flavor up to eleven. Some bartenders refer to cocktail bitters as the “salt and pepper” of the mixed drinks world. You add a few dashes like you would with salt and pepper. Just make sure the bitters you’ve selected work in the cocktail you’re making.

Various classic cocktail recipes call for specific cocktail bitters, but sometimes it’s fun to experiment and see which flavors work for you. Want to use walnut bitters instead of Angostura bitters in an old fashioned? We won’t stop you.

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Tips to make cocktail bitters

While you can easily purchase cocktail bitters from a variety of brands, you might want to guarantee you enjoy the flavor by making your own. The easiest way to make bitters at home is to start with a jar. Add the herbs, botanicals, fruits, and other ingredients you prefer. Top it with a bottle of high-proof neutral grain spirit. Let the mixture sit for at least twenty-four hours before using it in a cocktail. You can strain some into a smaller bottle to make it easier to add dashes to your favorite drink, just like with store-bought cocktail bitters.

Bitters cocktail
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How to store cocktail bitters

Storing cocktail bitters is extremely easy. Make sure the bottles are securely closed after use, and then store them in a cool dry place. They can live right on your bar cart or home bar if that’s easiest. They don’t need to be refrigerated unless they are fruit-based and say to do so on the label. They’ll last for around five years as the alcohol content will preserve them.

Old fashioned
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What can you substitute for bitters?

If you don’t have any on hand, are too lazy, or are unable to go to the store to get some, what can you substitute for bitters? Well, sadly, there’s no substitute for cocktail bitters as they are so packed with flavor that you’d have a hard time finding something worthy of replacement. An orange peel, some infused simple syrup, or homemade bitters are pretty much the only ingredients that come close to a few dashes of potent, flavorful cocktail bitters.

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Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
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