What Are Bitters, And How Do You Use Them?

They're the secret weapon of the cocktail world

If you've ventured into your local cocktail bar, you've likely seen bitters on the menu. Just a few drops can turn a cocktail into an even better one. But what exactly are they, and how can you use them in the mixed drinks you make at home? Here's what you need to know.

What are bitters?

Bitters are flavored extracts made from infusing herbs, seeds, bark, roots, flowers and berries with alcohol. The liquid is highly concentrated, which is why you need only a few dashes in those mixed drinks.

Mainly used nowadays as flavoring agents, bitters were once popular natural remedies to help with digestive issues and bloating. If you have an upset stomach, drink a club soda or ginger ale with a few drops of bitters (vodka optional), and let the healing begin.

What are the best bitters brands, and where can you find them?

There are a variety of bitters to choose from, and each has its own unique qualities and flavor. Two of the most common brands are Angostura and Peychaud's, which are used in numerous classic cocktails such as the old-fashioned, Manhattan and Sazerac. If you're feeling a little more adventurous, opt for flavored bitters like fig, turmeric, grapefruit and chocolate.

Bitters can easily be found at your local liquor or grocery store, online, and in some specialty wineshops.

Can I make my own bitters?

If you're the kind who likes to infuse your own olive oil or make homemade vanilla extract, making bitters should be your next project. First, pick out your preferred flavoring ingredients, such as herbs, spices, roots, fruits and nuts. Secondly, get yourself a neutral, high-proof spirit, such as vodka or whiskey. For a hint of sweetness, you can also add items like raisins or molasses, or add liquid sweeteners at the end.

Combine all the roots, bark and spices into a airtight jar with the alcohol, and store it in a cool, dark place. Depending on the ingredients, the infusion can take up to a month. Make sure to give it a little shake each day to help distribute the flavors. Once it's ready, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth and store it in a clean jar.

For a deeper flavor, repeat this process by heating the solids in a pot on the stove with water. Strain the second batch through a cheesecloth and add it to the first batch, little by little, until you get the taste you want.