What are cocktail bitters?
A simple description would be that they are a concentrated herbal distillation that is used to flavour cocktails, cure various ailments, and have a “bitter” flavour.
A more complex description can be found on the Wikipedia entry for “Bitters”. It goes into the history and preparation of bitters quite nicely.
Things that intrigued me the most about cocktail bitters and what got me hooked was the dizzying array of flavours available and how they can be used to change and customize a cocktail easily, without needing to think too much about volume, ratios, sugar, etc. If you’ve never seen bitters before, they usually come in a bottle with a little hole at the top or in a little eye-dropper bottle. Bitters are added to drinks in quantities of drops. You might think something so teeny tiny wouldn’t have such a BIG impact on a drink, but it does! A yummy impact!!
Where to begin? There are SO MANY different flavours and brands available, it’s enough to make someone crazy!
First off, ensure that your bitters are in fact, in alcohol. Some bitters brands (cough Fee Brothers cough) are in a glycerine base. Go into any cocktail/bartending supply shop, and the people working there will all tell you the same thing and advise you against using their products. They are stocked simply because some people will go in and ask for them by name.
Once you’ve determined that your bitters are in alcohol, then it will come down to flavour preference. Are you the kind of person that LOVES chocolate? Buy some chocolate bitters! Do you like citrus fruit? Buy some citrus bitters! Do you like fruit of any flavour? Buy some orange bitters, cranberry bitters, cherry bitters, the list goes on and on. You can add any flavour of bitters to any flavour of cocktail you want. No, really. I’ve added aromatic bitters to a rum and coke, I’ve added citrus bitters to a gin and tonic – there really are no rules to which flavours you can combine. It’s all up to personal preference and you will start to combine things which you think will taste the best!
If you don’t know where to start and are getting overwhelmed with titles like “Burlesque bitters”, “Bolivar bitters”, and “Moondog”, here are a couple of flavours I would recommend starting with:
“Aromatic” bitters – this is the flavour of the classic Angostura Bitters, but you can buy the “aromatic” flavour from other producers. I quite like the Angostura bitters, and have nothing bad to say about their classic flavour (their orange bitters on the other hand are in a glycerine base).
Another brand’s aromatic bitters which I like are made by the Hella Bitters company. To me, aromatic bitters actually taste more sweet than bitter, a bit like cherry mixed with a nondescript herbal flavour.
The neat thing about aromatic bitters is that they are also medicinal. Feel a little tummy upset and like your intestines are about to go on strike? Take a good tablespoon of Angostura and voila, stomach and intestinal spasms are gone!! (give it 20 minutes or so to take effect – your mileage may vary; I’m not a doctor, Jim!)
“Citrus” or “Orange” bitters – adds a nice citrus kick to something that is less intense than adding lemon or lime juice. I’ve even used several drops of citrus bitters in lieu of lemon/lime juice – it’s not quite the same but it’ll do when you can’t make it to the grocery store. Sometimes, having the gentle essence of orange is better than juice because the bitters won’t spoil and you can only add so much juice before your cup runneth over! You will find many cocktail recipes that use orange bitters; probably as many that you will find that use triple sec/Cointreau/Grand Marnier. It’s a versatile flavour that you can use in many ways. Citrus bitters I would recommend would be by Hella Bitters, and Orange bitters I would recommend would be by Bittercube or Regan’s.
Honestly, the best and most fun way to try bitters is to head to your local bartending supply shop and ask them if they offer samples. If they don’t, ask the bartender really nicely and then tip them generously if they let you try them. ;) Then, go ahead and start experimenting! :)