From the Blog: What the Heck are Bitters? (Bartending Basics)
What do you actually know about bitters? Sure, you add the occasional dash of Angostura to an Old Fashioned, and you might even have a few artisanal flavors on the shelf, but how much do you really know about these mysterious little bottles of booze? (Yes, bitters are alcoholic). Bitters have been around longer than the cocktails they now adorn, but few people understand their role outside of a few classic recipes. Luckily, that’s all changing.
Bitters are back, and they’re more relevant (and tasty!) than ever. Get a better grasp on what bitters are, where bitters come from, how to use them, and what the bitters revival means for your favorite cocktails. It’s time to get back to bartending basics with a better look at bitters.
What Are Bitters?
In the simplest terms, bitters are a “flavorless alcohol base, infused with flavors made from botanicals like aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and fruit.” These infusions are doled out in sparing doses (literally drops) to add concentrated tastes and aromas to cocktails, tonics, and even food. Mark Bitterman, author of Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari argues that “Bitters are to cocktails as salt is to food." A resounding endorsement.
Lauren Mote, world-renowned bartender, sommelier, and owner of Bittered Sling recently talked bitters and flavor as a guest on our podcast. Mote paints a more lush picture of the role of bitters on her site:
“Originally marketed as a medicinal tonic, bitters are a concentration of select natural herbs, fruits and spices now used primarily as a flavouring agent for cocktail and culinary creations ranging from savoury to sweet. By the dash or the drop, each creation offers an intricate range of complex flavours that perfectly accentuates food, spirits and even sparkling water.”
Sounds even more delicious. But what does she mean by “medicinal tonic,” and where do those complex flavors come from?
The History of Bitters: Angostura and Peychaud's
You can’t talk about the history of bitters without mentioning Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert. While stationed in Venezuela in the early 19th century, this German surgeon developed a tonic derived from local botanicals to promote health, "aid digestion," and fight tropical parasites. He named this elixir after the town he developed it in, Angostura, and the rest is history.
While Angostura bitters obviously doesn’t promote health and wellness or ward off malaria—a common 19th century “tonic” claim—it is tasty as hell. And that taste is why you can’t really talk about the rise of cocktails without mentioning the role of bitters. The two go hand in hand.
One of the earliest definitions of “cocktails” comes from the May 13, 1806 edition of The Balance, and Columbian Repository (thanks to Bittered Sling for the quote). It defines a cocktail as:
“A stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. It is vulgarly called a ‘bittered sling’ and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.”
Bitters are what make cocktails more than just ice and booze. They add flavor, complexity, and sophistication, and they did so long before the age of sweeteners, exotic fruits, and modern additives. The real shame is that it’s take so long for bitters to reclaim their rightful place in the cocktail community, thanks in large part to the innovation blight that followed Prohibition.
One of the only bitters producers to survive Prohibition, Angostura is the biggest name in town. Odds are, when a classic cocktail calls for “bitters” it usually means Angostura. But that’s changing fast, and even in its pre-Prohibition heyday, Angostura had competition.
Peychaud's Bitters: The Key to the Sazerac
Developed around the same time as Siegert’s Angostura, Antoine Amédée Peychaud's (or “Amedie” if you prefer) lighter, sweeter, gentian-based bitters carries a distinctly floral influence that sets it apart from other tinctures. Peychaud, a Creole apothecary from then French Haiti, celebrated his tonic’s pharmaceutical properties and health benefits like many “miracle cures of the 19th century, but it wasn’t long before Peychaud’s bitters unique aroma became a staple ingredient in the New Orleans iconic cocktail — the Sazerac.
You just can’t make a Sazerac without Peychaud’s bitters. Angostura is great for Old Fashioneds, and champagne cocktails, but Peychaud's lighter, sweeter bitters brings a completely different flavor profile to cocktails, and earns a spot on any serious bartender’s shelf. Peychaud’s is a reminder of the diversity that’s always been present in bitters production, and this range of savory, sweet, and aromatic bitters is bursting onto the cocktail scene in bars across the world.
The Bitters Revival
Modern bartending has brought quality ingredients, meticulous craftsmanship, and classic traditions back behind the bar. Since the 90’s, bartenders like Tobin Ellis and Tony Abou-Ganim have been unearthing long lost cocktail recipes that rely on oft-overlooked ingredients like bitters. The demand for modern takes on these classics pushed bartenders to innovate and improvise everything from bar tools, glassware, mixers, and even DIY bitters production to get the right mix of flavors for these updated cocktails. As a result, bitters is experiencing a decade long renaissance of new flavors, aromas, uses, and pairings. Welcome to the bitters revival.
New bitters producers in the US and abroad like Bittermens, Bitter Truth, Regan’s Orange Bitters, and Bittered Sling are furthering this revival while exposing novice cocktail enthusiasts to the simple joys of a well made classic (using a dash of bitters of course). Today’s modern bartender relies on bitters for the complex flavors, rich aromas, and traditional taste that customers demand.
Those little bottles on the bar near the fruit garnishes are a lot more important and complex than you think. The next time you order an Old Fashioned, Sazerac, or the next big thing, take a moment to smell the aroma in your glass, savor the rush of flavor in that first sip, and thank your lucky stars that bitters are back, and better than ever.