Bitters Are the 'Spice Rack' of the Bar

By: Katy Spratte Joyce  | 

bartender using bitters
Bitters are an essential ingredient in cocktails. They add aromatics, flavor and sharpness to the drinks. Maksym Fesenko/Shutterstock

In our "How to Stock a Beautiful Bar Cart" explainer, Samantha Montgomery, the national brand ambassador for Kentucky's Bardstown Bourbon Company, says bitters are like the "spice rack" of a bar. They're necessary ingredients to "add tang" or sharpness to alcoholic drinks.

To learn more about this versatile — and sometimes misunderstood — component of a great cocktail we talked to Nate Beske, bar manager at the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Beske grew up in northern Wisconsin, where the muddled orange and cherry Old-Fashioned with a topper of Squirt was the drink of choice.

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What Are Bitters?

Bitters, according to Beske, are high-proof spirits infused with fruits, herbs, spices and botanicals used to flavor cocktails. They're usually named for the ingredient responsible for the principal taste — think orange bitters and peach bitters. The alcoholic strength varies but is generally about 40 percent by volume.

There are two types of bitters: digestive bitters and cocktail bitters. When you drink digestive bitters, they help you digest your food, hence the name. These are more popular in Europe than North America, and they're typically sipped straight or on the rocks after a meal. Some of the most common digestive bitters include:

  • Amaro
  • Campari
  • Aperol
  • Jägermeister
  • Unicum

Cocktail bitters, on the other hand, are those mixed in cocktails. The flavors are much more concentrated than digestifs so they're rarely served straight. Some of the best cocktail bitters include:

  • Regans' Orange
  • Peychaud's
  • Angostura
  • Bittermens
  • The Bitter Truth
best bitters
(L-r) Some of the best cocktail bitters include Regans' Orange, Peychaud's, Angostura Bitters, Bittermens and The Bitter Truth.
Corresponding brands

For anyone just getting into mixology or interested in learning about "starter bitters," Beske says angostura is a given. Angostura bitters are the original aromatic bitters and the oldest bitters brand. They were the leaders when the cocktail industry essentially launched in the early 1800s. And it's not just that; angostura bitters are required for classic cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old-Fashioned.

Montgomery agrees and also suggests angostura as a good bitter to start learning with.

"I would start with angostura bitters as they are amongst the oldest, most traditional, and most often called for in classic cocktail recipes, but definitely experiment with others," she says.

"Cherry bark vanilla bitters is the way to go if I want to turn someone on to gin or a good whiskey sour," Beske says. "Hands down, it's the best bitters ever."

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Why Use Bitters?

Bitters are designed to add complexity and depth to cocktails. Aromatic bitters, for instance, are those flavored with herbs, spices and barks, giving them strong aromas. Citrus bitters are high-proof alcohols infused with the peels of citrus fruits. Orange bitters are the most popular. Herbal bitters can add flavors and aromas like thyme, lavender and tarragon.

As far as using bitters in day-to-day bartending, Beske says he prefers the Bittercube brand.

"For instance, in our Moscow Mule, we use Jamaican No. 1, which has flavor profiles of ginger which is the base flavor of the Mule," he says. "Not only does it just impart ginger, but it also offers black pepper and citrus to the cocktail, making for a superior drink."

In fact, the Hewing (and any good mixologist) uses bitters in most of its cocktails. Beske says the flavors push their cocktail program to a higher level. The hotel sells 300 to 400 classic Old-Fashioneds, every weekend.

"We have our own custom blend of bitters from Bittercube (orange bitters, cherry bark vanilla bitters and root beer bitters)," he says. "Those mixed with Piloncillo sugar and our custom blend of Knob Creek and Maker's Mark whiskeys is why people can't stop ordering the Old-Fashioned."

Angostura bitters
The Angostura brand has been a staple since 1824 and is featured in cocktails like the Old-Fashioned, Manhattan and the Vieux Carré.
Alexander Prokopenko/Shutterstock

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Demystifying Bitters

But there are more ways than adding a few dashes of angostura bitters to an Old-Fashioned to have fun with bitters. "I personally love a Vieux Carré. The delicate blend of rye, cognac, vermouth, Benedictine, Peychauds and angostura bitters is magical and with a kiss of lemon oils on top, consider it done," Beske says. "This is also my favorite drink to make. It feels like I'm cooking comfort food for someone because it's a drink that hugs you from first sip to finish."

Overall, the mixologist and longtime barkeep wants to demystify bitters. "Don't be afraid of bitters," Beske says. "When adding them to cocktails, [they're] not bitter, but add a level of balanced sweet and dryness."

And while a little goes a long way, don't short yourself on bitters. At-home cocktail enthusiasts shouldn't be intimidated by the flavoring. Instead, take Beske's pro tip to heart: "Don't just throw in a few drops; hold your bitters bottle and go from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock with the bottle and dash with confidence."

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