So you’ve decided you want to make a cocktail. You have your whiskey or rye selected. You have your citrus ready to go. The Demerara sugar cube is at the ready if necessary. The only thing left you have to decide on is the bitters. Everyone knows they need bitters for a great whiskey cocktail… but, like, why? Why do all the great cocktails require–or benefit from–the addition of bitters? What are bitters exactly? We’re glad you asked. Here’s everything you never thought you needed to know about the greatest cocktail ingredient (except maybe a proper ice cube).
What Are Bitters, Historically?
The origins of bitters go back to the world of the ancient Egyptians that may have infused medicinal herbs in jars of wine, so we’re taking this investigation to Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia:
A bitters (plural also bitters) is traditionally an alcoholic preparation flavored with botanical matter so that the end result is characterized by a bitter, or bittersweet flavor. Originally, numerous longstanding brands of bitters were developed as patent medicines, but now are sold as digestifs, sometimes with herbal properties, and as cocktail flavorings.
Since cocktails often contain sour and sweet flavors, bitters are used to engage another primary taste and thereby balance out the drink and make it more complex, giving it a more complete flavor profile.
That description absolutely nails it in every regard, but in modern times, we’re more concerned with today’s recipes as opposed to the historical significance of the ingredient.
What Are Modern Cocktail Bitters?
Short version, they’re a blend of bitter and aromatic herbs and spices infused or tinctured in a high-proof liquor. This could, but does not have to, include herbs, spices, grasses, roots, leaves, fruits, and other plant matter that are dissolved and left to age for a specific amount of time in, generally, a neutral grain spirit. Angostura Bitters for instance–the bitters you can add to damn near anything to improve it–has a recipe that is a closely guarded secret the better part of two centuries later. But it is said to contain more than 40 different ingredients. That kind of time, dedication, and attention to detail (and/or ingredients) is what makes Angostura bitters so popular.
Want to Learn How to Make Bitters?
Combine a whole bunch of bittering plant agents with spices/flavor agents (allspice, aniseed, cardamom, cassia, and the like), herbs & flowers (hops, lavender, mint, rosemary, etc.), dried fruits (lemons, limes, oranges, etc.), nuts, beans, and anything else you can think and throw it all into a container with some seriously high-proof and neutral alcohol. You can do it with 100+ proof bourbon/rye or 151 proof rum, but the best results are going to come from the pure grain alcohol that made you lose your lunch in college like Everclear or Spiritus.
Should I Make My Own Bitters?
Don’t let the fact that we just presented you with the roadmap to create your own bitters confuse you, it is absolutely a journey not worth embarking on. Angostura bitters will always be the benchmark because they’ve been around since the early 1800s, and Peychaud’s bitters were developed in 1838. We don’t doubt your abilities, but it’s highly unlikely you can compete with almost 4 centuries of knowledge. Don’t get us wrong, making your own bitters is an experiment worth undertaking. But don’t feel inclined to subject your friends and family to the end result because, if your output was anything like ours, it won’t compare to the far superior commercially available options.
How Much Is a Dash of Bitters?
When the recipe for your cocktail of choice calls for a dash, and it generally does, you flip over that bottle of Angostura or Peychaud’s and gently coax one glob out of it. Technically, that “dash” is actually about 6-8 drops or 1/8th a tablespoon depending on the angle, size of the hole, force, and a bunch of other factors that don’t really matter unless you’re competing on Tales of the Cocktail or a similar platform. 99% of the time, you’re going to use 2 dashes which is what’s called for in an Old-Fashioned or Manhattan.
Where Should I Buy My Bitters?
If you’re in any way seriously interested in improving your cocktails, that also means you’re probably interested in the finer side of the whiskey with an “e” game. Shop your local big box and make some friends or reach out to your local mom and pop shop because either option is sure to have all the Angostura, Peychauds, Regans, Fee Brothers, Bittermens, Bitter Truth, Scrappy’s, BitterCube or The Bitter End options–whether you want classic aromatic, orange, thai, chocolate, grapefruit, lime, blackstrap, cherry, curry or any other weird, wacky and wonderful flavor options.
Alternatively, you can also pick up plenty of different cocktail bitters online through sites like Amazon, Drizly, and Bitters & Bottles, but we’d still recommend getting your foot in the door with your local shops because that’s how you’re going to get the best bottles for all your bourbon cocktails.