Look, we need to talk. It’s a difficult conversation I’ve been putting off for too long but I think we both know it’s time to get it out in the open. Yep, it’s time to talk about bitters. When it comes to bitters it’s all to easy to go down the rabbit-hole but hopefully we can have an adult conversation here without that happening so let’s give it a go…
What are bitters?
These little bottles show up relatively often in cocktail recipes. Why? What do they do and where did they come from? It might seem strange to put something bitter in a drink but it’s important to remember that, as always in cocktails, it’s part of a balancing act. Bitter combined with sweet play a similar trick on us to the more common sweet/sour combination of, say, a Daiquiri – the balance is pleasing to our palate. Think of chocolate; cocoa on its own is very bitter but with the addition of sugar – well I needn’t go on right? But I will anyway. We use them in tiny amounts which we call dashes. The term dash is a bit vague – a solid flick of the wrist is considered a “dash” – and it’s tempting for manufacturers to enlarge the hole in the cap (hello Angostura and Bitter Truth!) so care needs to be taken. A dash is about six drops or just short of 1ml. If you want to test your dashing skills you should fill a teaspoon in about six or seven dashes. If you feel you need more consistency you can invest in a dasher bottle (as seen at either end of the picture above) or use an eye-dropper or pipette.
Like so much in the world of alcoholic drinks, bitters started out as medicine. Or at least an attempt at medicine. It seems that in the past stomach complaints were rife – my theory being that a lack of knowledge of hygiene and refrigeration might have been a major factor. Soaking various dried roots, barks, herbs and spices in alcohol to extract their stomach settling properties was one attempt at a cure that accidentally resulted in the creation of many of the staples of cocktail assembly today. While amari and liqueurs mitigated the inherent bitterness of all those botanicals with the addition of sugar and a little extra dilution, cocktail bitters remained in their original concentrated form making them more stable and portable but also rather unpalatable on their own. As a result bitters would be mixed with some brandy, whisky or rum, a spoonful of sugar and a little water or ice. Hang on – isn’t that the recipe for an Old Fashioned? Bingo! Pretty soon people were taking their medicine recreationally and the rest is history.
In the golden age of cocktails (1865 – 1920) there appear to have been a wide range of aromatic bitters to choose from with Abbot’s and Boker’s (aka Bogart’s) being most popular judging by old recipe books. American prohibition killed the vast majority of those off and the remainder of the 20th century was something of a bitters wilderness with little more than Angostura and Peychaud’s being widely available. Orange bitters, once called for in a wide range of cocktails were practically impossible to find. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that just twenty years ago you could only get your hands on two or three different bitters without major difficulty but now you can find upwards of 200. So what happened? Well the internet, the cocktail renaissance and hipsters all happened – more or less in that order. While it’s great that bitters are easily available again it’s not all good news. The problem with bitters is that they’ve become something of a monster. They’re too often used to exclusivise recipes taking them out of reach of the home mixer. Or they’re used to tart up a cocktail menu. Or they’re just used to show off. Don’t fall into – or for – these traps and use bitters only as needed as an integral part of the drink. Think of them as your salt and pepper, fine tuning the balance of a drink or perhaps adding an extra dimension. If you invent a recipe try it with and without bitters. Ask yourself; are the bitters really adding anything material? If not, leave them out. Whatever you do, please don’t turn into a bitters bullshitter.
While I try to keep the recipes on this site from including exotic bitters I also happen to enjoy tinkering with flavours and making my own bitters and tinctures. If that sounds like that might be your thing too you can take the red pill and I’ll take you there in a future article but for the rest of you who just want to make some good drinks, take the blue pill and proceed as follows:
Angostura bitters. The one and only (well actually that’s not quite true) Angostura are the by far the most successful example of what we call “aromatic bitters”. The first bitters you should buy and the only bitters you should never be without. Deep, powerful, spicy, bitter and with the most ridiculous label ever, Ango rule the roost. You should be able to get them at any booze shop and, in some countries, in your supermarket. Anywhere a dash of bitters is called for without specifying which you can be assured Angostura is the right choice. You should be aware that Angostura made the hole in the top a bit bigger about 10 years back (it boosted sales by 30%) so older recipes may require a lighter touch. Anything that calls itself “aromatic bitters” will to some extent be interchangeable with Angostura. Bartenders still shudder in horror at the memory of the 2009 Angostura shortage, also known as the Angopocalypse.
Orange bitters. Happily available again, orange bitters should be your second purchase. There is no definitive choice with many bars using a mixture of two brands and the arguments about which brand or mix is best will continue but handily enough Angostura orange bitters are pretty good if a bit sweet. They have a bit more spice to them than more conventional orange bitters such as Fee’s or Bitter Truth. However Regan’s orange bitters are, in my view, the best all-rounder.
Peychaud’s bitters. Aniseedy, floral and bright red, you’ll need these peculiar fellows if you want to make a Sazerac – and who wouldn’t? They’re not used in too much else but they can put a bit of life in an otherwise bland drink. If you’re really not a Sazeracker you can probably skip these.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to point out that The Bitter Truth – a relatively new bitters superpower from Germany – make a great sampler pack of their range which gives the beginner a great introduction to cocktail bitters. They also make great bitters in general, although I find their orange bitters a bit dull and I’d rather have seen their superb lemon bitters in the kit instead. You get aromatic, orange, celery, creole (think Peychaud’s) and Jerry Thomas’ own decanter bitters (which I think is an attempt to recreate Boker’s and is pretty damn good). In other words your bitters needs are pretty much covered in one purchase.