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Spotlight On:
Cocktail Bitters

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Spotlight On: Cocktail Bitters

By definition, cocktail bitters are a liquid extraction of seeds, spices, berries, herbs, bark, roots, fruits, flowers, and leaves. These ingredients are highly concentrated, and combined with both water and alcohol - the latter acting as a preservative for the botanicals. Bitters are then bottled up and doled out by the drop or the dash to add flavour to cocktails.

Not only an essential cocktail ingredient, bitters are an integral part of every bartender's toolkit and these magic little bottles are starting to make their way into homes up and down the country as a must-have item for at-home cocktail making.

What about Digestif bitters?

These bitters are slightly different to cocktail bitters. Often referred to as Amari or Amaro, which means “bitter” in Italian, these drinks are more commonly grouped with other liqueurs, and include the likes of Campari, Aperol and other large format bitter drinks that are typically consumed post-dinner to aid with digestion.

Cocktail bitters, on the other hand, are categorised as a "non-drinkable beverage" - meaning they're absolutely not to be consumed in this way! The high concentrate element of cocktail bitters means they should be treated in a similar way as we view condiments with food.

Cocktail bitters can be seen to be a bit like salt or pepper, in that they help align, improve and accentuate flavour. But just as you would be a fool to eat a spoonful of salt, similarly, a glass of cocktail bitters would not be a good idea!

what are cocktail bitters

A Brief History of Bitters

Bitters can arguably be traced all the way back to the Middle Ages, when bittering agents were used by apothecaries to cleanse the body of toxins and aid in digestion. Physicians (or, those posing as physicians...) in the 1700s were readily selling their "bitters" creations as medicinal tonics. The idea was to take herbs and spices, preserve them in alcohol, and market them as a remedy for all sorts of disorders.

By 1806, the word cocktail was already being used to describe a mix of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters; so when pharmacist Antoine Peychaud added a dash or two to the alcoholic libations served up at his apothecary shop in 19th Century New Orleans, no-one batted an eyelid.

By the end of the 19th century, bitters were firmly in place behind the bars of cocktail pioneers such as Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson and in fact, many bartenders had more than a dozen brands of bitters at their disposal. Following a decline in the 20th century - due in part to American prohibition, in part to war and rationing, but largely a result of changing drinking habits - bitters are now back on the up! The return to classic cocktails, clever concoctions and a more bitter palate has seen the start of a 'bitters renaissance'...

Do Bitters Ever Go Off?

Not really. Although, whilst lacking a "use by" date, they certainly have a "best before". Keep them in your drinks cabinet out of the direct light and they’ll be fine for at least five years.

different kinds of cocktail bitters

What are Angostura Bitters?

Angostura is probably the most recognisable bitters brand, with its now iconic yellow cap and over-sized wrapper. (The story behind the label is apparently the result of an ordering mistake, but it's been that way for a century!) These aromatic bitters are the result of a super-secret recipe, which dates to 1824. The German doctor Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, travelled to Angostura, Venezuela in 1824, and created this secret blend of tropical herbs and plants with the intent of curing a variety of illnesses. The brand is now produced in Trinidad and the blend is still a well-kept secret, with only five people reportedly knowing the full ingredient list. With flavours like cardamom, nutmeg, and cinnamon (and notably NOT Angostura bark) - Angostura bitters are the key ingredient in classic cocktails like a Manhattan.

Other Bitters Brands to Know

Peychaud’s: Another household name that’s almost as old as Angostura, Peychaud’s bitters are lighter, sweeter and more floral. These gentian-based bitters tastes of anise and are named after the aforementioned Mr. Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a pharmacist who dispensed curative bitters with anise notes out of his pharmacy in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1838. Peychaud dispensed his bitters in Cognac and fans began to ask for them by name at bars throughout the city. The iconic New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac, uses these red-coloured bitters as a key ingredient.

The Bitter Truth: Founded in 2006 in Germany, these are some of the best bitters you will find on the market today. Each of these were formulated specifically for classic cocktails, but are perfect for modern drinks as well. The Bitter Truth bitters can add interest to simple drinks like a vodka tonic or balance the sour and sweet flavours of sours and fizzes.


Tagged in: cocktails, cocktail bitters. Categories: That's The Spirit, Booze 101.

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