What Are Bitters Anyway?
Maybe you’ve recently perused a cocktail menu and noticed the many varieties of bitters in the lists of ingredients. Or perhaps you’ve noticed small bottles labeled “Angostura bitters” while browsing your local liquor store (the distinctive label that looks too big for the bottle might have caught your eye)? And maybe you’re wondering, “What exactly is this mysterious ingredient, and does it belong in my home bar?”
What Are Bitters?
Bitters are made from botanicals, like aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and fruit. These ingredients are infused into a flavorless alcohol base to create a potent flavoring. You know how you add salt to almost everything you cook for that extra flavor boost? That’s sort of like what bitters do for cocktails.
Before Prohibition, bitters were used in all kinds of cocktails, but most brands disappeared when the U.S. cracked down on alcohol production. More recently, thanks to consumers’ renewed interest in craft cocktails, bitters have been making a big-time comeback.
There are all different kinds of bitters. Digestive bitters are typically imbibed neat or with ice after a meal, aromatic bitters are made with botanicals like orange peel, and herbal bitters contain anything from tarragon to mint. There are even nut bitters, including coffee and chocolate varieties!
More on Aromatic Bitters
A Classic: Angostura Bitters
All the various bitters can be confusing, but a good place to start is with Angostura bitters. One of the most popular varieties of aromatic bitters, they date all the way back to the 19th century. Named after the town of Angostura in Venezuela (not after the angostura tree, which has medicinal bark) and invented by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, Angostura bitters were originally intended to aid digestive problems and battle Venezuelan parasites.
Very few people — allegedly only five! — actually know the recipe for Angostura bitters. The secret formula is rumored to have more than 40 ingredients, collected in England and then shipped to Trinidad for production. The finished product is extremely concentrated, and Angostura bitters are a key ingredient in iconic drinks like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan.
Get the Recipes
A Southern Staple: Peychaud’s Bitters
Another well-known aromatic bitters is Peychaud’s, a key ingredient in New Orleans’s staple Sazerac cocktails. Compared to Angostura bitters, Peychaud’s are are lighter, sweeter, and more floral than Angostura bitters.
Next Level: Make Your Own Bitters
Bitters are a relatively easy (and affordable) addition to your bar cart to take your mixology skills to the next level. But if you want to get really advanced, you could try making your own.
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