Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | October 21, 2011 A Guide to Bitters

My latest post at, “A Guide to Bitters”

Bitters are fundamental to cocktails and bartending. In fact, they were integral to the first definition of a cocktail–any combination of spirit, water, sugar and bitters. But during Prohibition, production stopped on most bitters brands and as a result, their variety plummeted. As America moved from drinking complex cocktails to beer and vodka on the rocks, the craft of bartending suffered and bitters fell even further out of use, to the point where a common bartenders joke went, “What lasts longer, a bottle of Angostura bitters or your marriage?”

But what are bitters? Essentially they are a high-proof spirit that is macerated with a variety of herbs and spices. Usually bitters run around 35-40% alcohol, though they are so concentrated and powerful, you will rarely see more than 2-3 dashes in a cocktail. They add complexity and basically make a cocktail more interesting than it would be otherwise.

The most common types of bitters are aromatic bitters, such as Angostura Bitters. You’ve probably seen this brown bottle and oversized white paper label collecting dust on the back bar of your favorite dive. Aromatic bitters add a bitter depth to any drink they’re used in and are a critical ingredient to many cocktails.

The next most common and important type of bitters is orange bitters. Used in a host of old school cocktails, orange bitters are great in a Dry Gin Martini or even a Manhattan. There are a number of brands making orange bitters these days, but I prefer Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters.

The last famous type of bitters is Peychaud’s bitters. A required ingredient in the Sazerac, Peychaud’s is a New Orleans staple that has a distinctive bright red color and lighter, sweet, anise flavor.

Angostura bitters are widely available and most good liquor stores will now carry an orange bitters and Peychaud’s. But there are also an ever-growing number of bitters brands making more unusual flavors, from grapefruit and lemon to rhubarb and chocolate. A number of makers are even rediscovering recipes for bitters that were common in the 19th century and bringing them back to life. If you’re interested in a wider selection of bitters, look at the products from Bittermens, The Bitter Truth and Fee Brothers, though there seem to be more bitters makers coming out with interesting products every month.

Here’s a great, classic New Orleans cocktail that includes both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters:

Vieux Carré

1 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce Cognac
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 teaspoon Bénédictine
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Mix all ingredients in a double Old Fashioned glass over ice; stir.


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