Do Bitters Work For All Cocktails?

When it comes to cocktail crafting, using bitters properly can take a drink to the next level. The intense flavor of bitters can add complexity to almost everything it touches, from chocolate chip cookies to steak marinades. But without proper use, they can clash with certain cocktail flavors, potentially spoiling expensive spirits and mixers. Because of this, it's vital to understand the two categories bitters fall into and which cocktails you should pair with each.

According to Lex Madden, the bar manager at Point Easy in Denver, Colorado, bitters fall into two groups: bittering bitters and flavoring bitters. The latter is all about bringing the essence of some aromatic flavor, like lavender, jalapeño, or creole spice to your cocktail. Madden notes that these bitters don't work to balance out sweet, savory, or acidic notes in the drink — they are only intended to add a complementary element or flavor. Meanwhile, the bittering bitters typically do act as a ballast, typically for sweetness in mixed drinks, and work in everything from an Old Fashioned to a Manhattan. So which bitters go with which drinks, and how many dashes should the recipes get? 

How to use the two kind of bitters

Before reaching for your bitters, take a moment to evaluate your cocktail. If it's on the sweet side, like a sugary chocolate martini or a fruity Daiquiri, use one of the traditional bittering bitters, like orange-scented Angostura bitters or licorice-leaning Peychaud's. Imagine what a bitter note could do for the dessert-forward Brandy Alexander or the sweetly tropical Mai Tai. But if your current cocktail is not too sweet and can do with some complexity, like a light Tom Collins or gin and tonic, reach for one of the more exotic flavoring bitters, like Fee Brother's Black Walnut Bitters or The Bitter Truth Creole Bitters. Basically, what you can add flavoring bitters to is only limited by your creativity. 

As for how much you should add to your cocktail recipe, Madden likes to fall back on the Old Fashioned recipe as a rule of thumb: for every quarter ounce of sugar, add two dashes (or a quarter teaspoon) of bitters. With this bitter wisdom in your back pocket, you can hopefully go out and make some of the best-balanced and flavorful cocktails around.