Bitters, the name alone turns a lot of people away. However if you’ve had classic drinks like an Old Fashion or Sazerac you’ve had a few drops of bitters. I’ve even expressed the importance of bitters being stocked in your bar as a necessity. So before you go running to the door let’s talk about the bitter truth of why we need bitters.
Are Bitters, bitter?
First off bitters you should know up front don’t necessarily mean they are bitter. Bitters come also in flavor profiles of sour and bittersweet. Just like bittersweet chocolate, not many actually eat a candy bar of it but everyone uses it in baking to round out the sweetness. Cocktail bitters have that same effect, they will turn up the flavor or find the balance in a cocktail just like spices do in cooking.
What is in Bitters?
That is a question that can be different for every brand of bitters. This is what we can tell you, bitters are an alcoholic non-beverage. Which means you can buy it in your local grocery store! It’s made up of an array of botanical ingredients ranging from orange peel, cassia, cinchona bark, and aromatic herbs. Getting to know different brands of bitters helps you know when to use what. Not every bitter works in every cocktail. Most common to remember are Angostura for Old Fashions and Manhattans. Peychaud for Sazeracs.
What is the history of bitters?
Just like most of my bar history lessons bitters started out as a medicine to help relieve toxins from the body and help upset stomachs. The furthest we can date back bitters or the similar process of creating them is the Egyptians. (Does that mean if you’ve had a few too many Sazeracs you’ll be walking like an Egyptian?) However, their true rise came in the medicinal world around the Renaissance Era where they were brewed for the use in sick stomach tonics.
A German man named Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert would later take these bitter ideas and brew the most popular bitter we use today, Angostura Bitters. Dr. Johann came to find that his popular concoction was the perfect aid in curing sailors of sea sickness. That same recipe he sold in the House of Angostura in 1830 is the same we drink today in our Manhattans.
However, Dr. Johann was not the only one brewing world renowned bitters in the 1830s. In New Orleans, an apothecary by the name of Antoine Amedee Peychaud was brewing his own style of bitters that would be more floral and sweeter than Angostura’s. We would later use this as the must have ingredient to Sazeracs.
So where is that definitive line where we started using drinking bitters for fun? Well, it’s hard to say when the line between medicine and celebratory drink has a history of being fuzzy. The best we can say is that the start of the 19th century is where we really saw the concepts of cocktails (sugar, alcohol, and bitters) come to life. We’ve been having a great time since.
When to use bitters?
Using bitters really comes down to understanding exactly how they balance drinks. The best way to understand that is to try it for yourself. Next time you go to make a Manhattan or any drink with bitters that you love. Make one with the bitters and one without. Taste them against each other to see how the effect of bitters deepens flavors, balances notes on your taste buds, and overall is a key component to a good cocktail.
After that have your fun with them. Have a cocktail that is too sweet, add bitters. Have a cocktail using a lot of flavorful ingredients spice it with bitters. Want to have a blow your mind cocktail?Set your taste buds off with ingredients with salt, bitters, sour, and sweet!
What are Elle’s favorite Bitters?
That’s the bitter truth on bitters. I’ll share some of the cocktails I’ve had on my blog that use bitters so you can get to know one of my favorite bar ingredients better.
What is your favorite cocktail that has bitters in it? Have you used bitters at home before? Let me know down in the comments below!