The Perfect Cocktail 101: What are Bitters and How Do You Use Them?


What are bitters? If you want to up the ante on your cocktail recipes, you need to know a thing or two about bitters.

Unless you’re a bartender or a cocktail aficionado, you’re probably aware that a lot of drinks have bitters in them, but you might be hard-pressed to say what they actually are. As an essential to the modern bar, to master your cocktail making skills it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with bitters and what to do with them.

Here’s a quick guide to act as your introduction to the bitter world.

What are bitters?

Think of bitters as the spice of the cocktail world. They have a long history going back to the 1700s when they were developed by physicians and acted as medicinal tonics. A bitter is essentially a blend of either herbs, fruits, spices, or roots that are distilled in a strong liquor.

Angostura is probably the most common of the bitters, and even if you’re not steeped in the cocktail world you have probably already heard mention of it. Concocted in the river trading town of Angostura, Venezuela (now, Ciudad Bolívar), in the 1820s by a German doctor, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, working for Simón Bolívar, Angostura bitters quickly became popular amongst sailors looking to ease sea sickness. Nowadays you’ll find Angostura bitters in a variety of drinks, like an Old Fashioned or a champagne cocktail.

Can you make bitters at home?

While there are plenty of brands out there making bitters, both big and small, you can also go truly artisan and start making them yourself. The basics are mixing spices with a high proof alcohol and then allowing enough time for them to all sit and steep together. You’re not really restricted to what you use, you can blend a variety of spices and herbs as you see fit; a fun opportunity to experiment and have a homemade addition to your cocktail recipes. Make your own bitters and your own simple syrups and you will truly have a DIY cocktail bar.

How do you use bitters?

Since we’re considering bitters the spice of the cocktail world, use them a little like you would salt and pepper. That’s to say, they are not intended for consumption on their own, but add a few drops to a drink and you can completely change the taste. Start with some classic aromatic bitters – like Angostura or Peychaud’s – and then branch out.

You can get into fruit bitters, like Bar Keep’s organic apple or grapefruit, and even spicy bitters, like Sriracha from Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters. Or how about Thai Bitters from The Bitter End? If you’re feeling like you really wanting to commit to your new bitter habit, you can even invest in a Bitters Travel Pack so you can take your bitters with you. yes, they are in TSA-friendly sized bottles.

While the bitter options may seem overwhelming, keep in mind that having just one or two bitters on hand in your at-home bar can allow you to make a variety of cocktails.

Happy cocktail making.

Related on EcoSalon

How (and Why!) to Make Your Own Bitters

10 DIY Cocktail Syrups

4 Retro Cocktail Recipes Making a Comeback

Image: Dominic Lockyer

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.