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What Are Bitters? | Bitters Alcohol

By
Joshua Weatherwax
Table of Contents

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. In fact, bitters are one of the most commonly used ingredients in a bar for a range of popular cocktail recipes, but few people actually know what they are.

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Are they actually bitter? Are they alcoholic? What are they used for? These questions and more come up whenever bitters or a bitters recipe is mentioned, so it’s worth taking a closer look.

Read on to learn more about bitters, what they’re made of, how long they last, and whether or not they contain alcohol.

What Are Bitters In A Drink?

Bitters are a type of spirit infused with fruit, spices, leaves, bark, roots, and herbs—collectively known as botanicals. That means, fundamentally, bitters is a type of alcohol-infused with plant matter. 

What Are Aromatic Bitters?

Aromatic bitters, like orange bitters, are bitters infused with aromatic herbs, roots, and plant matter used for infusion. In this case, the infused botanicals are chosen specifically because of their aromas and their ability to add a fresh smell to mixed drinks. Common aromatics used to make bitters are mint, peppermint, hibiscus, lavender, valerian, lemongrass, and sage.

What Are Bitters Used For?

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 mixed drinks, a cocktail is given a more complex—and complete—flavor profile. Manhattans, martinis, Negronis, Sazeracs, and Old Fashioneds are the most common drinks that include bitters.

Generally, 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 make spring cocktails, summer cocktails, fall cocktails, or winter cocktails with bitters. You can also check out some of the best bartending books for more inspiration.N

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.

What’s In Bitters?: Bitters Ingredients

Bitters are typically made of three parts: a neutral spirit, a bittering agent, and aromatics. The spirit is almost always a grain alcohol, but the other two ingredients can vary greatly.

Here are some common bittering agents and aromatics:

Bittering Agents

  • Dandelion root
  • Angelica root
  • Licorice root
  • Wormwood
  • Sarsaparilla
  • Gentian root
  • Burdock root
  • Horehound
  • Wild cherry bark
  • Kola nuts

Aromatics & Spices

  • Orange peel
  • Cassia bark
  • Cascarilla
  • Gentian root
  • Cinchona bark
  • Lavender
  • Mint
  • Chamomile
  • Hibiscus
  • Valerian root
  • Lemongrass
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves, often used in aphrodisiac drinks
  • Coriander
  • Cardamom
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Do Bitters 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.

How Long Do Bitters Last? | Do Bitters Expire?

On average, bitters last around 5 years. However, there’s 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. So, feel free to leave it on your bar cart or in your cabinets without having to worry.

Do Angostura Bitters Go Bad?

Yes, Angostura bitters do go bad, but their shelf-life is much longer than you’d think. They last nearly indefinitely, but most people recommend only keeping them for around five years like other bitters. They won’t be labeled with an expiration date because the high alcohol volume in the bottles essentially sterilizes the bitters and keeps it shelf-stable

Does Bitters Have Alcohol? Are Bitters Alcoholic?

Yes, 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.

Bitters Alcohol Content

The average bitters have an alcohol content of 45%. However, this can vary depending on the particular ingredients used and the brand you’re purchasing. Luckily, bitters will almost always be labeled with their ABV, so read the label if you’re at all concerned.

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Ah, So That’s What Bitters Are!

Noe, 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. 

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. We've also got some neat tips on how to stock a bar.