What Are Bitters, And How Do You Use Them?

No bar inventory is complete with at least one bottle of bitters. But what are they and why are they so important? Bitters are botanical ingredients steeped in high-proof neutral alcohol to create a bitter liquid. These "bitters" are added to drinks to add flavor and balance out the sweetness of mixed drinks. The botanical agents used for bitters may include grasses, roots, bark, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Commonly used ingredients are orange peel, gentian root, cinchona bark, cascarilla, and cassia bark, but there's an enormous variety of possibilities and indeed a huge range of ingredients even within one bottle of bitters.

Once the chosen botanicals have infused the alcohol with their essential oils, the spirits become intensely flavored with the concentrated tastes of those plants. A few drops of bitters pack a powerful flavor punch, and even tiny quantities can completely change the profile of a beverage. Since it is so potent it's usually sold in small bottles with a dropper or dasher top to carefully control the amount of bitters that are dispensed in each pour.

What's in bitters and how are they made?

Bitters start with a neutral spirit — that means ethyl alcohol that has been distilled to a high concentration of at least 95% alcohol from grains, grapes, potatoes, or other plants. Since they are distilled without additives, neutral spirits have little to no flavor and are considered odorless and colorless. Neutral spirits serve as a blank canvas for flavor infusions.

Next, a selection of botanical agents is added to the neutral spirit and allowed to sit for a period of time so that the flavors can infuse the spirit base. Bitters were originally conceived as a medicinal tonic, so they traditionally contain herbs meant to aid digestion: things like gentian, allspice, cloves, thyme, cinnamon, and mint. In fact, some people still use bitters to soothe stomach upset to this day. The high alcohol content acts as a solvent, which helps to extract volatile aromatics and flavors and blends disparate flavors together harmoniously. The plant matter is then removed and the infused liquid that remains is bitters.

Since bitters are made with such a high-proof alcohol base they have about 35 to 40% alcohol by volume. However, since only 1 or 2 dashes — the equivalent of ⅛ to ¼ teaspoon — are added to a cocktail, the impact on the alcohol content of the cocktail is almost negligible.

The history of bitters

Bitters can trace their roots back to the patent medicines of the 19th century. These herbal concoctions were purported to be a tonic for all manner of maladies. Angostura bitters, for example, were invented in 1824, when Dr. Johann Siegert created the first aromatic bitters intended as a medicinal tincture for stomach ailments. Since alcohol also has a history of being used medicinally, alcohol and bitters formed a natural pairing for the health-conscious consumer in the days of yore. Thus, the cocktail was born. Their histories have been intertwined ever since.

The first use of the term "bitters" to describe appeared in a description of a cocktail in an 1803 agricultural periodical called the "Farmer's Cabinet." Smithsonian Magazine reports that another early description of a cocktail — this one from 1806 — lists the definition of a cocktail as "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters."

The popularity of bitters climbed alongside cocktails during the golden age of cocktails, from 1860 leading up to Prohibition. Peychaud's aromatic bitters popped up in 1832 in New Orleans' French Quarter, and the first orange bitters followed in the 1880s. They have remained a fundamental ingredient through the years, leading up to a resurgent popularity during the early 2000s cocktail revival which continues today.

What do bitters taste like?

All bitters have a sharp, strong botanical flavor but there's a lot of variation between different types of bitters. The original bitter flavors were Angostura bitters, Peychaud's bitters, and orange bitters. These are still traditional today and are a staple in any modern bar. Bitters have complex flavor profiles developed by their extensive ingredient lists.

The precise ingredients in established bitter recipes are usually a carefully guarded secret, but here's what we do know. Angostura bitters taste spicy with hints of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The unique herb gentian root also joins the party to bring a distinctive earthy essence to the flavor profile. Pecyhaud's is a little sweeter and has a lot more anise (licorice) flavor. Many bitters recipes include cinchona bark — which contains quinine — resulting in a sharpness similar to tonic water. Orange bitters taste like oranges but it's not as simple and straightforward as orange juice or syrup. It's got the more bitter flavor you get from orange peel with additional notes of spice including cardamom and caraway.

Modern bitters: a flavor panoply

In the 100-plus years since bitters were first invented, numerous bitters purveyors have sprung up to offer a broad range of options. Now you can get bitters in just about any flavor under the sun: grapefruit, peach, chili, lavender, celery, rhubarb, cocoa, campfire, and so on. These new iterations are described in vivid terms and run the gamut of flavors. Some are dark, rich, and smoky while others are earthy and herbal. Still, others are crisp and light. The one commonality is that they are complex. Bitters are never just one note. For example, Bitter Truth lists its Celery Bitters as having white grapes, sencha tea, lemongrass, celery leaf, fresh ginger root, coriander seed, fresh celery, and chicory. These are flavors that unfold in dazzling complexity.

The endless variety of bitters can seem overwhelming, but it helps to think of these flavors in groups such as citrus, herbal, floral, and spice. When you want to put a unique spin on a cocktail, you can swap more traditional orange bitters for another citrus, for example. Use floral bitters like lavender with gin, or use spicy bitters such as vanilla or mole bitters in whiskey and bourbon drinks.

Bitters are used in classic cocktails

Bitters rose to prominence during the golden age of cocktails, so they are a key ingredient in many of the timeless cocktails from the period. What would a Manhattan be without those few dashes of Angostura bitters? Leave the bitters out of an Old Fashioned, and you're essentially drinking sugar whiskey.

When Antoine Peychaud began selling his bitters in his French Quarter apothecary it gave rise to the now-famous sazerac cocktail, which originally was just Peychaud bitters with Sazerac cognac. From a dry martini to a whiskey sour, bitters are an integral ingredient in so many classic libations. They're arguably what makes a cocktail a cocktail.

You can give these classics an update by swapping out the traditional aromatic or orange bitters for a modern alternative, like using mole bitters in a modern Manhattan. Add lavender or hibiscus bitters to upgrade your gin and tonic. The only limit is your own inventiveness.

Bitters can go in almost any cocktail

Bitters needn't be relegated to the classics; they can enhance many different types of modern cocktails. Bitters can provide balance for sweet or salty drinks and help balance the boozy taste of a beverage.

Aromatic bitters are a standby in a Dark 'N Stormy, they add a bit of warming spice to fall cocktails and pull out earthy notes in a penicillin cocktail. If you can't get enough of them, you can use Angostura bitters as the main component of a cocktail, like the Trinidad Sour. Grapefruit bitters amp up the citrus flavors in a paloma cocktail recipe, adding depth and complexity, while lime or ginger bitters make a nice upgrade to a Moscow mule.

The addition of mole bitters to a boulevardier and you get The Left Hand. The bitters completely change the drink into something that resembles both a negroni and a Manhattan, with the chocolate bitters amplifying the vanilla and caramel notes from the bourbon. Orange bitters make a lifting addition to a chocolate martini or coffee cocktail while chocolate or vanilla bitters would amplify their rich, dark flavors.

Bitters spice up mocktails, too

Bitters can elevate a mocktail from a simple lemonade or sad soda to a truly quaffable experience. Because bitters have so much power to adjust the flavor of a beverage, they work wonders on mocktails. Even though they do contain alcohol, they are used in such small quantities the resulting mocktail is considered to have 0% ABV. For those who are more strict about alcohol avoidance, there are a few companies that specialize in making alcohol-free bitters with a glycerin base.

Begin by mixing your mocktail as you normally would; often this involves a seltzer, tonic water, or flavored soda plus citrus or other fruit juice. Add a few dashes of bitters in a complementary or balancing flavor, and see how the taste becomes invigorated and lively. The bitters add another layer to the simple formula of juice plus soda. It adds tannins, spices, herbs, and other botanical notes that alcohol usually supplies — without the risk of a hangover!

You could also use it to enhance a hot non-alcoholic beverage like hot chocolate, hot cider, or eggnog.

Other ways to use bitters

Not looking to indulge in a cocktail or mocktail? That's alright; bitters can be used in cooking, too. Add a few dashes to whipped cream to offset its sweetness and impart an herbal or spice fragrance. Aromatic, chocolate, or vanilla bitters would be particularly suitable for this. You can add bitters to baked goods like cookie dough or sweet biscuits. It instantly adds a bit of spice that will play off the chocolate flavors in chocolate chip cookies or adds flavor to plain sugar cookies. Bitters can also be combined with fruit in jams and jellies to counter the sugar's sweetness and add additional levels of flavor.

Bitters add dimension to egg dishes, too. Try adding them to your next quiche or batch of deviled eggs. Bitters easily lend their flavor to meat marinades to add savory herbs and vegetal qualities while tenderizing the meat. Select a bitters variety that matches your personal taste and will complement the meat recipe you are using.

Just like with cocktails, when using bitters in food, it's important not to add too much — a little goes a long way.

The best bitters brands

There's a multitude of options when it comes to bitters brands. Angostura is the original and oldest, while Peychaud's is a close second. These two are the standards when a recipe calls for "aromatic bitters." Fee Brothers has been around since 1864 and today is known for making inventive flavors like Aztec chocolate, black walnut, peach, and cardamom as well as older favorites like celery, orange, lemon, and aromatic.

Founded in 2006, The Bitter Truth has garnered several awards for its 19th-century style replica bitters called Bogart's Bitters and many bitters beginners appreciate the sample sets that allow newbies to experiment and explore bitters without committing to one bottle. Bittermens was established in 2007 but is already a well-respected brand. They're probably best known for the Xocolatl Mole Bitters but Hopped Grapefruit also gets a nod from experts.

Another of the more recently establishes brands Scrappy's Bitters (founded in 2008) stands out for its celery bitters, while the 2013-born Dashfire claims to have the largest selection of bitters flavors on the market. One newcomer to note is Hella Bitters (founded in 2011). It has been astoundingly successful in the crowded bitters market, heralded by bartenders for the aromatic bitters as well as flavors like ginger, eucalyptus, or apple blossom.

Where to buy bitters

You can purchase bitters wherever you buy spirits. They're usually for sale at liquor stores or in the liquor aisle of grocery stores that sell alcohol. Look for bottles shelved next to the cocktail mixers and bar garnishes. Bitters are also widely available online. You can find them at retail sellers such as Amazon, grocery stores, or alcohol distributors like Drizly or Total Wine and More. 

You can also seek rare or difficult-to-find bitters flavors directly from the manufacturers. Particularly for small-batch or local bitters companies, you may need to purchase your bitters from the producers themselves. Many of them offer online sales, or you can explore local bitters companies in person to discover something distinctive from your hometown or your travels.

Even though the bottles are sold alongside alcohol, bitters are considered non-alcoholic so you do not need to be 21 to purchase them. Furthermore, you can purchase them online without worrying about interstate alcohol regulations or alcohol delivery rules specific to each state or municipality.

How to make your own bitters

To make your own bitters, choose the herbs, spices, bark, or roots that will flavor your bitters. You can keep it fairly simple and stick to one or two flavors, say, lemon peel and lavender blossoms. You can also create a complicated mixture of bark, spices, and herbs. If you're intimidated by the idea of choosing the botanicals for homemade bitters, there are many bitters recipes available, or some companies make kits that come with all the ingredients you need. These kits take the guesswork out of the recipe while providing the fun of seeing firsthand how bitters go from neutral spirit to aromatic flavor powerhouse.

Place your selected botanicals in a neutral high-proof alcohol such as vodka, seal them in a jar, and let them steep at room temperature for a few weeks. Shake the jar periodically to mix the flavors. After two to three weeks, strain out the solids and you are left with your homemade bitters.

How to store bitters

Since bitters make such a drastic impact on the flavor of a cocktail, it's important to use fresh high-quality bitters. Alcohol is naturally antimicrobial — it's used to sterilize surfaces after all — so can bitters go bad? How long do bitters last? It's true that bitters don't go bad but flavors can fade over time. An open bottle of bitters lasts about five years before it becomes less potent and starts to lose strength. 

You do not need to refrigerate bitters but store them as you would other shelf-stable foods. Keep them in a cool dry place away from heat or direct sunlight. One exception is bitters that have a glycerin base rather than a neutral spirits base. This specialty type of bitters must be kept in the refrigerator and has a much shorter shelf life. Always secure the lid tightly to avoid evaporation, and use your bitters liberally before they have a chance to lose intensity.