Bitters are used to give spice, depth & complexity to drinks, becoming an important part of a wide number of cocktails. The two brands commonly available - Angustora Bitters & Peyschaud's Bitters - have stood the test of time for good reason. But this doesn't that you shouldn't have a go at making your own cocktail bitters to add an individual twist, & renewed interest in your favourite cocktails. In this "how to" on making your own bitters we'll provide a few recipes, general guidelines & tips on flavouring your own bitters.
Bitters started life as a group of apothecary cure-everything stomach remedies over 200 years ago but are now-a-days almost entirely known for their use behind the bar to flavour cocktails.
Bitter can be considered to be the seasoning or "salt & pepper" of cocktails. They bring their own flavours of course, they're mostly be used to add balance, or bring depth & complexity to a cocktail, enhancing the taste of all the other ingredients.
Bitters are concentrated so only a 2 to 3 dashes of bitters are ever need at any one time in a cocktail. As a general rule, if you feel a cocktail tastes flat or missing something, try adding a couple of dashes of bitters.
To add bitters to a cocktail, give the bottle of bitters a firm downward shake (as if it were tomato ketchup) so that a few drops shoot out the bottle - each one of these motions is called a "dash".
On this page you'll find out about:
What are Bitters?
Broadly speaking, bitters consist of (i) a flavouring agent, (ii) a bittering agent, & (iii) a liquor (or spirit):
- Flavouring agents are an extract (or tincture) from an individual plant, or a combination of extracts derived from numerous plants. Bitters usually have one predominant flavouring component, such as:
- aromatic - cinnamon, anise, cloves, juniper berries or black pepper extracts, or
- fruity - cherry, grapefruit, lemon, mint, orange, peach or rhubarb extracts.
- Bittering agents are typically a root or bark of a plant or schrub, such as quassia wood, gentian, lavender, barberry root bark, mint thistle seed, birch leaf & dandelion leaf.
- Liquors or spirits are primarily used to preserve the bitter, although higher proof alcohols can also bring out more flavours from the flavouring & bittering agents. The liquor can be over-proof rum, vodka, brandy, whiskey or gin. In general, the higher the alcohol content of the bitter, the longer its shelf-life. The alcoholic strength of bitters is typical between 28 & 48 %.
Bitters can be made to capture the flavour of herbs, roots & spices offing a medicinal flavour, whereas other bitters are made to capture the aromas of fruits & flowers.
Before embarking on how to make cocktail bitters, its useful to be aware of the commercial bitters that cocktail recipes most commonly call for on a regular basis & understand what they bring to the flavour pallet.
The vast majority of cocktails typically call for one of three types of bitters:
These tend to be sold in rather small bottles - remember that a little goes a long way. You wont need too many - & don't buy any until you're sure you're going to use them - otherwise you'll end up with a bar cabinet piled-up with bitters that you will be leaving as a legacy for your grandchildren.
Angostura Bitters are the "go to" bitters called for in most cocktail recipes. They are found in almost any bar are the world - probably along with most grocery stores & bar cabinets. If you're going to have a home-bar & make you're own cocktails then you're going to need a bottle of Angustora Bitters.
Angostura Bitters is pink or rose in colour, with a potent aromatic aroma & a medicinal flavour that hints of all-spice & gentian (a European mountain herb) - the chief bittering agent. All-spice is the dried unripe berry of Pimenta dioica found in the Carribean, & has a warm pungent flavour that hints at cinnamon, clove, nutmeg & pepper.
Angostura Bitters were first developed by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siergert in 1824, a German doctor who had served at the battle of Waterloo before moving to Venezuela. As a surgeon general in Simon Bolivar's army, Siegert experimented with local herbs, roots, botanicals & barks to develop a tonic to treat troops suffering from digestive ailments.
Johann named his bitters formulation after the exotic sounding town Angostura, in Venezuela. No one appears to know precisely why the label is too large for the bottle.
Famous cocktails where Angustora Bitters are essential include:
Overall, Angostura bitter's are characterized by a strong bitterness, with warming pungent highlights & a mild sweetness that they bring to a cocktail - remember not to add too much.
Peychaud's Bitters are - it is is fair to say - less well known than Angostura Bitters, though they have just as rich a history & are synonymous with the Sazerac cocktail. Not as commonly used as Angustora, if you're serious about cocktails then it is worthwhile investing in a bottle of Peychaud's Bitters.
Peychaud's Bitters are bright red in colour, with a slightly floral aroma & a flavour that hints at anise or gentian with notes of cherry & spice. It will add a beautiful rosy hue to otherwise colourless cocktails. Not as bitter as Angustora, but nonetheless medicinal & earthy.
Peychaud's Bitters were original developed in Santo Domingo by Haitian pharmacist Antione Amedee Peychaud in the 1830's. Peychaud is used in the very popular Sazerac cocktail - a drink that has kept Peychaud's Bitters prominent.
Famous cocktails where Peychaud's Bitters are essential include:
- Vieux Carre
Orange bitters are a orange peel extract (typically from bitter or "Seville" oranges), along with other spices blended with bitter barks & roots. Quite a few commercial brands are available on the market today - no single brand stands out as quintessential orange bitters. In general, the orange peel taste will dominate these bitters, surrounded by sharp herbal notes. It is useful to have one bottle of Orange Bitters in your bar cabinet.
A "fifty-fifty" mix of Fee Brothers & Regans Orange bitters mixed together is apparently a favourite of New York Bartenders.
Famous cocktails where Orange Bitters are essential include:
Overall, Orange Bitters tend to moderately bitter, with a warm pungent & slightly sour flavour.
Popular Commercial Bitters for Cocktails
How cocktail aficionados taste bitters: drop a little on the back of your clean hand & smell the bitter to take in the aroma. Then lick the bitter off back of your hand & sniff again. Finally, lick the back of your clean hand.
Instructions for Making your own Bitters
Here's a simple recipe to try in making your own cocktail bitters that will have a wide variety of uses.
Bitters Recipe Ingredients
|Overproof White Rum||120||ml|
|Dried Orange Peel||30||g|
|Cardamon Pods (Crushed)||1||tsp|
|Fennel (Bruised Seeds)||1||tsp|
|Coriander (Crushed Seeds)||2||tsp|
Bitters Recipe Items
Equipment you'll need:
- Glass Jar (e.g. Kilner Jar)
- Dropping Bottle
Bitters Recipe Instructions
- Combine the rum, orange peel, cardamom pods, caraway seeds & coriander seeds in a clean canning jar.
- Leave for 1 week, away from sunlight, gently agitating about once a day.
- Add the sugar syrup & let sit for one week more, again agitating daily.
- Strain the mixture through a coffee filter & store in clean labelled dropping bottles. The bitters will keep indefinitely.
Other Uses of Bitters
Bitters can be used much more than seasoning cocktails - here are some of the additional uses in cooking & perhaps treating light ailments.
Medicinal Uses of Bitters
Treating Upset Stomachs with Bitters
Besides their unique & exceptional influence on the taste of cocktails, bitters can still be used as they were originally intended to treat an upset stomach - simply drink a mixture of either water, soda or ginger ale mixed with a few dashes of bitters (to taste).
Bitters & Soda Hangover Remedy
A few dashes of bitters can be added to carbonated water, ginger ale or cola to settle the stomach & help refresh after an evening of over indulgence. Serving without ice will be easier on the stomach.
Treating Hiccups with Bitters
Although perhaps a little far fetched, some believe that bitters can be used to cure hiccups. First soak a slice of lemon or orange in bitters of your choice, then dip in sugar before biting on the fruit.