Few types of alcohol catch the eye like a little bottle of bitters, with its peculiar old-timey label offering some past promise of healing. But what exactly are bitters, where did they come from, and why do they seem to pop up everywhere?
Bitters have been around for a long time and really hit their stride in the late 19th century. They've since become an integral part of mixology and popular cocktail recipes. And the addition of bitters to modern mixology was a blessing. With just a few drops, an entire drink’s flavor profile is expanded. It was once thought to have some pretty substantial health benefits, too.
This post, then, is our humble attempt to tell the story of bitters.
We’ll first go over what bitters are, what bitters include, and provide a history of bitters’ creation and usage. Then we’ll cover the different types of bitters and their potential health benefits. And finally, most crucially, how you can easily make your own delicious bitters at home.
What Exactly Are Bitters?
Bitters are spirits (typically neutral and high-proof) infused with fruit, spices, leaves, bark, roots, and herbs—collectively known as botanicals. That means, fundamentally, bitters are alcohol infused with plant matter. To fully unpack that answer, let’s first look at exactly what bitters are made of. Then we'll look at where the name bitters came from and what ultimate purpose bitters serves today.
What Are Bitters Made of?
Traditionally, bitters are made by soaking botanicals in clear alcohol, typically grain alcohol. According to the Oxford dictionary, a botanical is “a substance obtained from a plant and used as an additive, especially in gin or cosmetics.” The reason clear or grain alcohol is preferred is twofold. First, stronger alcohol maximizes flavor extraction and preservation Second, a neutral spirit emphasizes the character of the botanicals used.
Common Ingredients Used to Make Bitters
Popular botanicals used to make bitters—chosen for their flavor and medicinal properties—include orange peel, cassia bark, cascarilla, gentian root, and cinchona bark.
Though, as we’ll see, bitters can be made of virtually any botanical.
Does Bitters Have Alcohol in It?
Cocktail bitters like Angostura generally have 35–45% alcohol. Though these types of bitters are used by the drop, so the amount of alcohol is negligible. That’s why they’re marketed as non-alcoholic.
Potable bitters (like Campari), also known as bitter liqueurs, have a similar alcohol content to cocktail bitters but are meant to be enjoyed in greater quantity. They’re most definitely not labeled non-alcoholic.
Why Are They Called Bitters?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, bitters got their name from their flavor profile. The herbs and bark roots chosen for infusion often have a sharp, strong taste due to their tannin levels (see: What Are Tannins?).
Can You Drink Bitters Alone?
Cocktail bitters aren’t meant to be enjoyed alone. They were originally conceived of and still used today as an additive to other beverages. You can drink potable bitters, again, also known as bitter liqueurs or digestifs, alone. In fact, digestifs like Campari and Fernet are meant for just that.
What Is the Purpose of Bitters?
It’s fair to ask “why do people drink bitters?” given that they’re, well, bitter. Today, the purpose of bitters is to balance out the taste of a cocktail. Cocktails primarily contain sweet and sour flavors. By adding another primary taste, bitter, into mix drinks, a cocktail is given a more complex—and complete—flavor profile.
But that wasn’t always the purpose of bitters.
A History of Bitters
The act of infusing alcohol with plant matter is about as old as possible. The ancient Egyptians created herbal wines by sealing botanicals in wine jars. That wasn’t for added flavor. The herbs chosen were picked for their medicinal benefits.
Where Did Bitters Come From?
The exercise of infusing liquor with botanicals took a big step forward in the middle ages when distilled alcohol became widespread. That allowed for more concentrated preparations because stronger liquor extracted more from plant matter. Soon the renaissance dawned and medical traditions began being codified. Herbal tonics using these stronger alcohols became some of the earliest pharmaceutical products in the tradition of medicine we inherited.
But bitters as we know it—as an additive to mix drinks—first took shape in the early 20th century. That's when the British began adding medicinal bitters to a fortified Spanish wine, Canary wine. The practice quickly spread to colonial America. In 1806, it showed up in the first recorded definition of the word cocktail, which described a mixture of “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Who Invented Bitters?
The first person to successfully brand and mass produce modern bitters was Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, who created a type of bitters named after the town of Angostura, Venezuela in 1824. The purpose was to deliver digestive relief and a stimulant to the Venezuelan army. That led to, in 1830, the creation of the House of Angostura, a bitters company dedicated to producing his recipe.
Types of Bitters
Given that making bitters is not a recipe but a loose formula for combining distilled liquor and botanicals, there are innumerable types of bitters. Let’s take a look at the most common bitters varieties, along with some key differences to be aware of.
The 6 Top Bitters Brands
Before today’s bitters boom, there were typically only two brands of bitters behind the bar. And to understand bitters, you must familiarize yourself with this old aristocracy: Angostura bitters and Peychaud’s bitters. Then we’ll list a few of the common lesser known kids on the block.
Here are the 6 best, most popular bitters brands on the market:
Credit to Dr. Siegert and his company, Angostura bitters is still the most popular bitters on the market. Like any great recipe, though, the specifics are closely guarded by the House of Angostura. Some say the recipe has over 40 ingredients. Some say only five people on the planet know the recipe—and they’ve made a pact never to fly on a plane together. The raw ingredients are first gathered in Britain, then transported to the production facility in Trinidad (where the corporate headquarters moved from Venezuela).
Those ingredients are then collected in The Sanctuary, an upper chamber in the production facility. It's there that the five Chosen Ones blend the herbs and spices. Then it’s all infused with a high-alcohol spirit and the distillate is combined with coloring and brown sugar. It’s then diluted to 44.7% alcohol.
True to bitters’ origin as a medicine, Peychaud’s bitters was created in New Orleans in 1830 by Antoine Peychaud, a Creole apothecary. Its primary botanical is the gentian root and it’s comparable to Angostura in terms of flavoring agents and common uses. Though unique to it is an anise aroma and a slight background of mint. It is the definitive component of the Sazerac cocktail, which was created in New Orleans around 1850. And it used the bitters available from a local apothecary: Antoine Peychaud.
Fee Brothers Bitters
The Fee Brothers started in 1864 and is still family-owned. They began making altar wine in the 1920s and in a few decades were producing grenadine and bitters. It’s now one of the most widely-available bitters on the market. They come in a staggering variety of flavors: West Indian orange, peach, lemon, grapefruit, mint, and old fashioned aromatic.
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 Bitters
One of the newest additions to the bitters family, but beloved nonetheless, Regan’s Orange was created in the 90s by a team of scientists-cum-mixologists. All at the behest of the Sazerac company (the folks behind Peychaud’s). It was the market’s first modern attempt to create a commercial brand of orange bitters and it was wildly successful. It tends to be a bit spicier than most other orange bitters, owing to the increased presence of cardamom.
The Bitter Truth Bitters
German bartenders Alexander Hauck and Stephan Berg teamed up to create The Bitter Truth. It's the only bitters on this list that can accurately be described as craft bitters. Chocolate bitters, cucumber bitters, and olive bitters round out a surprisingly delicious selection. These bitters have become very popular among the modern mixology crowd for the creative energy their unique flavors impart into cocktails new and old.
Another modern addition to the pack, Scrappy’s was founded in Seattle in 2008 and based on the principle that bitters could be made better. And they’re proving with each day that it doesn’t necessarily pay to be humble. Bartender Miles Thomas immersed himself in herbology and methods of extraction. He came up with a line of bitters with the goal of enlivening drinkers’ senses through rich aromatics and intense flavors.
What Are Orange Bitters?
What characterizes orange bitters from other types are the botanicals used for infusion. Orange peels are essential, often the peels of Seville oranges, and cardamom, anise, coriander, and caraway seed are usually thrown in the mix.
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 is the most commonly used orange bitters on the market. You’ll typically find orange bitters in some Old Fashioned and dry martini standardized recipes.
What Are Aromatic Bitters?
Aromatic bitters, like orange bitters, are so named because of the herbs, roots, and plant matter used for infusion. In this case, the infused botanicals are chosen because of their aromas. Common aromatics used to make bitters are mint, peppermint, hibiscus, lavender, valerian, lemongrass, and sage.
What Are Digestive Bitters?
Digestive bitters infuse botanicals known for their digestive properties, and they’re still used today just as bitters were originally used: for medicinal purposes. Common digestive herbs used to make digestive bitters are gentian root, goldenseal, burdock, dandelion, and angelica.
What Are Natural Bitters?
Recently, the market has seen small-batch manufacturers creating bitters focused on local sourcing, certified-organic products, and the absence of any GMOs. Some popular ones are El Guapo, Urban Moonshine, and Scrappy’s.
What Are Cocktail Bitters?
Cocktail bitters are what most of us think of when we think of bitters. That means they’re used for flavoring cocktails with drops, dashes, or splashes. Angostura and Peychaud’s, while originally conceived of as digestive bitters, are now known primarily as aromatic cocktail bitters.
Potable vs. Cocktail Bitters
Oxford defines potable as “safe to drink, drinkable.” Defining cocktail bitters against potable bitters doesn’t mean cocktail bitters aren’t safe to drink. It just means potable bitters are intended specifically to be drunk in larger quantities or on their own. That intention is clear because cocktail bitters are sold in tiny little bottles. And potable bitters are sold the same liquor bottle sizes as any other liquor—750ml bottles, usually.
Potable bitters are also called bitter liqueurs, digestifs, or digestivos. They’re made by infusing a base spirit with bitter botanicals, just like cocktail bitters, but they’re nowhere near as highly concentrated. Campari, Fernet Branca, Aperol, Cynar, and Luxardo Amaro Abano are all popular examples.
How to Use Bitters
All this mouthwatering talk about flavoring cocktails with bitters makes you wonder how to get from theory to practice. What drinks are made with bitters, and in what quantities? After I run out and buy a bottle of bitters, how long will it last? And if I don’t want to buy bitters but using it still appetizes me, how can I find a substitute for it?
Answers, as ever, are below!
What Kind of Drinks Do You Put Bitters In?
Manhattans, martinis, Negronis, Sazeracs, and Old Fashioneds are the most common drinks that include bitters.
From a mixological standpoint, bitters should be added to a cocktail that’s already heavy on sour and sweet characteristics. The seven primary tastes are bitter, salty, sour, astringent, sweet, pungent, and umami. Adding a bitter sensation to a flavor profile heavy on other primary tastes deepens its character and fleshes out its structure. Follow that general rule when creating your own cocktails and you’ll be adhering to a best practice. You can also check out some of the best bartending books for more inspiration.
How Much Bitters to Use
A dash. As you now know, cocktail bitters are very concentrated. You often don’t need more than a dash. But how much is a dash of bitters? A dash of bitters is about 1/8th of a teaspoon, which shakes out to about 6–8 drops from the bottle.
If you’re ever concerned that bitters might be too strong, give it a taste. Adding a dash to 8 ounces of soda water and taking a sip is a good way to simulate the volume and environment your bitters will encounter when it finally grows up and joins a cocktail.
How Long Can You Keep Bitters?
Once you find a bitters you love, it would be a tragedy to give it up prematurely. How can we, then, ensure that our bitters remain our partners for as long as possible? Let’s look at when bitters go bad and whether or not bitters should be refrigerated.
Do Bitters Ever Go Bad?
Yes, bitters go bad. But after a long time. That’s not to say they spoil and become truly nonpotable. It's similar to how and when hard liquor goes bad. That’s to say their flavor profile can change to such a degree that they’re no longer worth using as originally intended. This is the case with any high-alcohol solution: chemical reactions within the bottle change the nature of its contents over the years. You can expect the contents of an opened bottle of bitters to change flavors after about a decade. Unopened, the shelf life of bitters is essentially indefinite.
Should You Refrigerate Bitters?
Nope! No need to refrigerate bitters. Even though there are organic compounds in bitters, the amount of alcohol acts as a natural sterilizer and preservation agent.
What Can Substitute for Bitters?
If you don’t have bitters and need to use it in a pinch, you can whip your own bitters together at home. A process we detail later on. But if you’re not keen on using bitters altogether, you can get part way toward the flavor bitters imparts with some crafty bitters substitutions and replacements.
Peels of citrus fruits are bitter, and adding a slice of the peel or zesting the peel into a cocktail can provide a bitter character to a sweet or sour drink that needs some tempering. In fact, citrus bitters are a popular type of bitters. This is probably your best bet to cheaply replicate the sensation of bitters on the fly.
Maybe you have potable bitters, digestifs, or bitter liqueurs on hand like Campari, Fernet, or Luxardo. If so, you can add a teaspoon into a cocktail in substitution for a dash of highly-concentrated cocktail bitters.
If you have the ability to grind herbs and spices, raid your cabinet. Grab coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, all spice, and a few peppercorns. Grind ‘em up and soak them in, ideally, a neutral spirit like vodka for 5–10 minutes. Strain out the solids and add to the cocktail.
The Health Benefits of Bitters
Historically, bitters claimed to cure a great variety of ailments, including malaria. Those claims became dubious in the light of modern medical science. But let’s not forget that bitters are still made with herbs, seeds, roots, and other plant matter. And though past claims were a bit outlandish, botanicals have proven medicinal and therapeutic benefits. That means bitters do too. So let’s take a look at a few questions revolving around the health benefits and modern medicinal usage of bitters.
Are Bitters Healthy?
Yes! In moderate quantities, bitter herbs promote healthy digestion by increasing the secretion of the compounds the body uses to break down and digest food.
What Does Bitters do to Your Body?
When we eat edible, bitter herbs, our bodies defensively digest aggressively, which has health benefits. This is because bitter taste is a human evolutionary solution to things that are typically poisonous. Our body compels us to spit it out and, if we don’t, it kicks the digestive system into overdrive. The goal being to break the seemingly poisonous item down as fast as possible. But not everything bitter is poisonous.
By increasing digestive secretions, we can quickly absorb nutrients and detox the liver. It’s even theorized that, because the brain and the digestive tract are so closely linked, bitters can relieve stress.
Can You Take Bitters After Dinner?
Absolutely. Given bitters’ talent for helping us digest, taking bitters after dinner is the ideal time to take bitters. Keep in mind, though, that using bitters isn’t a replacement for anti-acid, PPIs, heartburn, or any other digestive medication. If you have existing digestive or gastroesophageal issues, talk to your doctor about the best solution for you.
Specific Bittering Agents and Aromatics and Their Known Benefits
Because bitters are a custom combination of botanicals, you can tweak your recipe and chase specific therapeutic effects. Here are some common bittering agents and aromatics and their known therapeutic uses.
- Dandelion root: Boosts the immune system, provides antioxidants, reduces cholesterol
- Angelica root: Reduces heartburn, treats insomnia, and promotes digestive health
- Licorice root: Anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties
- Wormwood: Treats nausea, fever, and muscle pain
- Sarsaparilla: Promotes healthy skin and alleviates joint pain
- Gentian root: Aids digestive problems like gas, diarrhea, and heartburn
- Burdock root: Provides antioxidants, detoxifies blood, promotes healthy skin
- Horehound: Aids digestive problems like gas, bloating, constipation, and indigestion
- Wild cherry bark: Promotes respiratory and digestive health
- Kola nuts: Promotes production of gastric acid, increasing digestive effectiveness
Aromatics & Spices
- Lavender: Promotes healthy skin and sleep, natural pain reliever
- Mint: Facilitates smoother digestion, anti-inflammatory
- Chamomile: Reduces pain and swelling, helps with sleep and relaxation
- Hibiscus: Packed with antioxidants, can help lower blood pressure
- Valerian root: Treats insomnia, anxiety, headaches, and digestive problems
- Lemongrass: Relieves anxiety, lowers cholesterol, boosts oral health
- Cinnamon: Anti-inflammatory, powerful anti-diuretic, loaded with antioxidants
- Cloves: High in antioxidants (and for that reason, included in some aphrodisiac drinks), improves liver health, can reduce stomach ulcers
- Coriander: Can help lower blood sugar, fight infections, and promote heart and digestive health
- Cardamom: Can treat bad breath, prevent cavities, and help with digestive problems
Bitters Nutritional Information
Bitters are good for you, we know that. Maybe not as good for you as people in 1805 thought, but they’re still pretty good. So let’s take a look at some nutritional information to make sure bitters check all your boxes. Let's check out whether bitters have carbs and if bitters are gluten free.
Do Bitters Have Carbs?
Carb counts in bitters vary, but the amount of bitters used in a cocktail makes any carbs negligible. For example, there are about 4g of carbs per teaspoon of Angostura bitters. If a dash of bitters is about 1/8th of a teaspoon, that means there’s about 0.5g of carbs from bitters in a standard drink that uses Angostura bitters.
Are Bitters Gluten Free?
Bitters are thought to be gluten free, but, unless a manufacturer claims a product is gluten free, don’t assume. There are so many ingredients—secret ingredients, no less—in bitters, that you’re better safe than sorry. Call or email the manufacturer and ask if there’s any doubt. Angostura claims their bitters are gluten free, so you can be confident that Angostura bitters is gluten free.
Good? Nice! And now, the most exciting moment of the article: making your own delicious bitters! We at BinWise have been sitting on an invaluable, top-secret bitters recipe for too long. At last, we give the people what they want. Here, then, we reveal for the first time in public, a previously-shrouded orange sarsaparilla bitters recipe from the legendary Bar Dad™. Please enjoy responsibly.
Bar Dad's™ Easy 3-Week Orange Sarsaparilla Bitters Recipe
Making bitters is a pretty simple process. Once you get your hands on the right botanicals, you combine them with a base spirit and wait for the infusion to happen.
What Kind of Alcohol Is in Bitters?
The best alcohol for bitters is pure grain alcohol, of which Everclear is typically the most easily found brand. The benefits of using a flavorless, high-proof alcohol is first that the breakdown of the botanicals being infused is maximized. And second that the character of the botanicals isn’t obscured by deliberate flavor profiles in the alcohol.
Ingredients to Make Bitters
For Bar Dad's™ orange sarsaparilla bitters, you’ll need:
- 2 cups of grain alcohol, 120 or 151 proof.
- 4 orange peels, sliced thin or zested
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 teaspoon cloves
- 3 green cardamom pods
- ⅓ teaspoon coriander seeds
- 10 drops gentian extract
- 1 teaspoon sarsaparilla
How to Make Your Own Bitters
Step 1: Create the Bittering Mix
Combine the sarsaparilla and gentian extract with 1 cup of grain alcohol in an airtight jar, seal, and let steep for 1 week. Shake for 10 seconds on the beginning of the 4th day.
Step 2: Create the Spice Mix
Combine the caraways seeds, cloves, cardamom pods, and coriander with the remaining cup of grain alcohol in an airtight jar. Seal it and let it steep for 1 week. Shake for 10 seconds on the beginning of the 4th day.
Step 3: Steep with Oranges
Strain solids from bittering mix and spice mix after steeping and combine. Pour into 3rd jar with orange peel slices or zest in it. Seal, let steep for 1 week. Shake for 10 seconds on the beginning of the 4th day. Strain solids and enjoy. Bitters will keep indefinitely if kept in an airtight container.
Ah, So That’s What Bitters Are!
Yup! You’ve learned all about bitters and you’re now the proud new owner of highly-concentrated orange sarsaparilla cocktail bitters. Add a dash to your favorite cocktail for a lightly-spiced citrus backbone and subtle vanilla notes. It works particularly well with old fashioneds.
And if you’re learning to bartend and looking to get your hands dirty with some more mixology, check out these drinks every bartender should know and our collection easy and profitable winter cocktail recipes. We've also got some neat tips on how to stock a bar.
All content provided by BinWise and related properties is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult with a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.