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.
Are they actually bitter? Do they contain alcohol? 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 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.
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 spiri
- a bittering agent
The spirit is almost always a grain alcohol, but the other two ingredients can vary greatly.
Here are some common bittering agents and aromatics:
- Dandelion root
- Angelica root
- Licorice root
- Gentian root
- Burdock root
- Wild cherry bark
- Kola nuts
Aromatics & Spices
- Orange peel
- Cassia bark
- Gentian root
- Cinchona bark
- Valerian root
- Cloves, often used in aphrodisiac drinks
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 liquor storage 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 5 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.
Ah, So That’s What Bitters Are!
Now, you’ve learned all about bitters and you’re 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.
If you’re learning to bartend and looking to get your hands dirty with some more mixology and popular cocktails, check out these drinks every bartender should know. As a bartending beginner, you'll also want to know the difference between club soda vs. tonic water. We've also got some neat tips on how to stock a bar.
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly are bitters?
Bitters are neutral alcohol infused with herbs, fruits, spices, roots, tree bark, and other botanicals.
Are bitters alcoholic?
A bottle of cocktail bitters is generally 35-45% alcohol. Since most bitters are only used by dashes or in drops, the amount of alcohol content is very small. That's why they're often marketed as non-alcoholic, even though they're made from alcohol.
What can I use instead of bitters?
You can substitute any type of Amaro, a family of Italian herbal liqueurs that taste bitter ("amaro" means "bitter" in Italian). This range of spirits includes Campari and Fernet-Branca.
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