Tips for Beginners: Bitters

July 30th, 2007

If you look at any cocktail book printed in the early twentieth century, you are fairly certain to come across several recipes that require the use of bitters. Made using herbs and citrus fruits, bitters were popularly used in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as medicinal preparations to help cure various ailments.

When tasted alone bitters are not particularly pleasant, which is probably why they also began to be added to drinks. This eventually developed in to the “cock-tail”, described in the May 13, 1806 edition of “Balance and Columbian Repository” as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters“. The cocktail was born.

Bitters are normally used in cocktails rather sparingly. While you might typically measure cocktail ingredients in centilitres or fluid-ounces, bitters bottles usually have a cap fitted with a very small hole which means when turned upside-down, one shake of the bottle will release what is generally termed a dash. This dash, just a few millilitres in size, is often all that is needed, although some recipes call for several dashes.

From left to right, Fee Brothers Aromatic, Stirring Blood Orange, Fee Brothers Orange, Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged, Peychaud's, Angostura Orange, Angostura Aromatic and Regan's Orange bitters.

It’s tempting to think that because such small amounts are used, bitters aren’t worth the hassle of locating and can just be skipped over. However, despite the small amount used they have a very definite effect on the flavour profile of a drink, helping to bring the ingredients together. Don’t think that because of the name it will immediately make the drink bitter. While it may taste bitter on its own, in a cocktail it works more like adding a herb to a sauce.

If you still don’t believe that a few drops can make such a big difference in a drink, knock up two cocktails that use bitters, like an Old Fashioned (with aromatic bitters), or a Martini (with orange bitters), but leave the bitters out of one of them. The cocktail sans-bitters will probably taste perfectly okay, but the one with them will have an added complexity that really elevates the drink.

Unfortunately, while brands were once in their dozens, if not hundreds, at the height of bitters popularity, a combination of increased consumer awareness that the medicinal properties were entirely unproven, along with prohibition, shrunk the bitters market to all but a few hardy companies like Angostura and Fee Brothers. Even with those bitters that are still available it’s rare to find them in all but a select few off-licenses and shops. The one exception is Angostura aromatic bitters, which have managed to maintain excellent distribution in many countries. These are an excellent product and therefore a good place to start with bitters.

You’ll also want to pick up some orange bitters, which work wonderfully in many drinks and were actually more popular than Angostura bitters prior to prohibition. Remember that though they might be hard to track down, with just a few dashes per cocktail a bottle of bitters is going to last you quite some time. And everyone one of those drinks is going to taste much better thanks to the addition of bitters.

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Posted in Bitters, Tips for beginners

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5 responses to “Tips for Beginners: Bitters”

  1. Gabriel Gabriel says:

    Hey wow, how do the Angostura Orange bitters hold up to the Regan’s No.6? I’ve been looking for them everywhere and have yet to find them. And, if those are Stirrings’ Blood Orange bitters in the back left, how do they fare?

    Also, found any good use for the Fee Brothers’ Peach Bitters yet? There’s one drink we’ve made with only middling results.

  2. Marleigh Marleigh says:

    Gabriel—Jeffrey Morgenthaler has a lovely drink called the Nacional that uses peach bitters to their full advantage. And I quite like the Angostura orange bitters, myself.

    Jay—Yes, how are the blood orange bitters? I have seen them about but haven’t been able to commit to the HUGE bottle. Also, how are the lemon bitters? I haven’t tried those yet (though I do have a bottle of Fee Bros mint bitters).

  3. Jay Jay says:

    Gabriel – I’ve literally just got the Angostura Orange bitters today. I’m just trying a Martini with them now, so far so good. I’ll post a brief review later tonight. I’m also planning a big round-up of both Orange and Aromatic BItters later this week once my package from The BItter Truth arrives from Germany, but in brief, the Stirrings aren’t really anything to get excited about.

    I haven’t picked up the Peach Bitters yet but as well as the drink Marleigh pointed out several of the drinks by Jamie Boudreau make use of it and sound lovely.

    Marleigh – I’ve yet to actually do anything with the lemon bitters except try them in a bit of water when I first got them. I can’t recall ever finding any recipes that call for the use of it, so I just need to find some time to experiment with it in various drinks I guess. I’ll be sure to post anything I find that works. If anyone knows anything that’s worth trying…?

  4. Mark Parry Mark Parry says:

    I have a bottle of mint bitters. So far the only thing in which I’ve used them is homemade lemonade (fresh squeezed lemons, sugar and water) – adds a little zing to it.

    Also, I enjoy several good dashes of A. bitters with Coke.

  5. Robert Robert says:

    Angostura Orange Bitters are dangerous! After last trip to Trinidad 100ml bottle sat on the shelf for 3 mos., then I used up the whole bottle in Pineapple Ketel One Martinis. 1/2 Ketel, 1/2 Pineapple juice, dashes of bitters and shake. It’s a good combination. But now I have to go back to Trinidad and get more.

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