For this week’s liquor spotlight, we decided to focus on an often unsung hero of the cocktail-making game: bitters! You may only use a few drops of these little buddies in your drinks, but boy oh boy do they pack a punch.
Getting inside their tiny liquid brains and figuring out how they tick is important, so lets do this thing, readers!
First things first: To understand bitters, its best to think of them as a bartender’s spice rack. Tiny quantities can provide depth, complexity, and a much-needed pop of flavor to your drinks–so much so that the decision to use or skip them can make or break your cocktail. Do you know how weird apple pie would taste if you didn’t use cinnamon or nutmeg? Really, really weird. That is how an Old Fashioned or Manhattan would taste if you didn’t use bitters. Bottom line: they are important.
Second, it is also important to note that there are actually two different basic types of bitters: grand and petite. All the bottles you see pictured above are petite. Petite bitters are incredibly strong (both in taste and in alcohol content) and concentrated cocktail flavoring, and are used by the dash. These are likely the type of bitters you are most familiar with.
You’ve probably seen a lot of grand bitters, but just didn’t know that they were in fact bitters. Aromatic liqueurs like Campari, Aperol, Benedictine, and even Zwack are all considered grand bitters. Counterintuitively, this type of bitter is generally lower in alcohol content and more mild in flavor. You would use far more of a grand bitter in a drink than you would a petite, you could even drink them straight if you wanted (do NOT try to drink petite bitters straight, trust us…).
Since grand bitters are a much more amorphous category, for the purposes of this article we will focus on petite.
When you hear the word bitters you probably think of one specific type, but in actuality bitters come in hundreds of different flavors. Fruit, spices, sweet, savory — all of them exist in the bitters world. But as you start to invest in different flavors, you want to make sure you are getting the best. We’ve singled out a few of our favorites to get you started.
First up is ye old faithful, Angostura Aromatic Bitters.
We would venture to guess that in your past encounters with bitters, you have dealt only with this guy. This brand, made in the West Indies, really is the 800 pound gorilla in the bitters game. This is your basic bitter: flavored with a combination of spices that serves to give an extra kick to your cocktails without providing much more flavor. Perfect for use in Manhattans.
Next up, our personal favorite, Chuncho Amargo bitters!
If you want to make an authentic Peruvian Pisco Sour, you MUST use these bitters. Made in Peru, these are similar to Angostura in that they are also based on a combination of spices, but the flavor here is much more distinct. Slightly sweeter and stronger than Angostura, these are perfect to use not just in Pisco Sours but also other pisco, rum, or even tequila based drinks.
Finally, if you want a great sweet or fruit-based bitter, you can’t go wrong with Fee Brothers.
We’ve already used both of these types of bitters in some of our original creations, and we are huge fans. When purchasing bitters that are based on a specific flavor or food, it is essential that you get the real deal–meaning bitters that actually contain ingredients from that food, not just artificial flavoring. Fee Brothers does a good job of keeping the ingredients natural and maintaining a strong, fresh flavor. Their Orange Bitters are an absolute must-have.
So there you have it, your primer in the world of bitters. Now get out there are start testing them out!
As always, have a wonderful weekend, and drink responsibly!