If you spend a lot of time in bars, either behind them or enjoying some beverages there, you might have heard the term “bitters” before. You probably know that it’s a drink ingredient, but maybe you don’t know many of the cocktails that feature it or what exactly bitters are.
Never fear. We’re here to conduct a crash course in bitters. When we finish, you’ll want to grab a bottle and add them to your collection. Their versatility makes them a must-have for the aspiring bartender.
What Are Bitters?
Before we get into some of what you can do with artisanal bitters and cocktail syrups, it’s helpful to know about them. Bitters are spirits that are typically both high-proof and neutral. You can find ones that the makers have infused with different things.
You might find herbs, bark, roots, leaves, fruit, or spice-infused ones. Bartenders call these botanicals. In their most fundamental form, bitters are plant matter-infused alcohol that you add to drinks or use as their base. Most people don’t drink straight bitters, but there’s no accounting for taste.
What About Some Cocktails You Can Make with Bitters?
You might have already tried bitters in a cocktail before, but you may not necessarily have realized it. For instance, there’s The Sawyer. You add 7 Orange bitters dashes to 7 Peychaud’s dashes, then add 14 Angostura dashes, 2 gin ounces, and finish with ½ an ounce of lime juice and ½ an ounce of simple syrup.
This is a lightly bitter, tart cocktail. Most bartenders will make it with Beefeater gin. You’ll often encounter it at upscale restaurants or your classier cocktail bars.
The Champagne Cocktail
The Champagne Cocktail is one that never goes out of style, and it’s one of the simplest options on this list to make. You can make it with sparkling wine or champagne, and it’s okay if you buy one of the cheaper ones like Brut or one of the most expensive on the menu or in your liquor cabinet at home. Champagne’s price can vary wildly, so you can break the bank with this one or cheap out with it.
You add a sprinkle of Angostura bitters to the champagne along with a sugar cube that you drop in last. Nothing could be simpler. You get a sweeter, effervescent cocktail that goes well with brunch.
The Manhattan is another cocktail that you can find with dozens of variations. If you order it at five New York bars, you’re likely to get something a little different every time.
We like the version that comes with Angostura bitters, orange bitters for brightness, and then a little sweet vermouth and rye whiskey. The whiskey comprises about 80% of the drink, so this one is not for amateurs. Two or three of these can easily put you on the floor, especially if you’re drinking on an empty stomach.
You might choose to experiment with this one at home a little bit to find the formula you prefer. Some people like a sweeter version, for which they add more vermouth. This is an old-school cocktail that will make you feel like a private eye or a 1920s gangster when you drink it.
Most drinkers have at least tried a martini before, and they’re a contentious subject. Some people love them, while others have a strong aversion to them.
These days, you’re not likely to get bitters in your martini unless you specifically ask for them. At one point, though, most bartenders considered them to be a martini staple.
If you want to sample a version with bitters, you can start with equal parts dry vermouth and gin. You should add the bitters at the end, no more than a dash. Orange bitters work best.
Everyone always likes to argue about what the first cocktail ever created was. That’s not something that anyone can probably ever prove, but New Orleans natives will often try to tell you that it was the Sazerac, and this is certainly still a classic you can order in any halfway-decent Big Easy bar.
The Sazerac starts with rye whiskey. Most bartenders will then add sugar, Peychaud’s, and a tiny bit of absinthe. Others might substitute Cognac for the main ingredient.
You can also try several other honorable mention drinks with bitters, such as the Old Fashioned. You’ll likely enjoy experimenting with them so much that you’ll keep a bottle on hand from now on.