What are cocktail bitters? Great question.

Posted September 04 2013

Cocktails bitters have a rich history in medical practice and, at one point, you could trace bitters to curing pretty much any aliment you could have, which is probably a bit of a far fetching notion. But, speaking more currently, what are cocktail bitters and probably most importantly, why do you care?

First, you can watch our 20+ minute explanation of cocktail bitters including the creation of the Falernum Sour which we created two versions: one with and one without cocktail bitters.

Now, let's dig a bit deeper. While I covered a lot of this on my review entitled Why Do I Need Cocktail Bitters, I wanted to further expand on it a bit more to explain a bit more on the "what" and some trending bitters we've seen selling well in the store (and why).

What are Cocktail Bitters?

The purpose of a cocktail bitter is two fold: bring aroma and complexity to your beverage as well as take spirits that just don't seem to "work" together and combine them. Perhaps the scapegoat explanation is "it's science!" but from a taste perspective, that's where life really gets interesting (you can't really taste "science.") 

Cocktail bitters are your seasonings... your "salt and pepper" of cocktail creation. Just like most people wouldn't think twice about spicing up a burger or steak with a bit of garlic salt or perhaps black pepper, you should be thinking the exact same way for cocktail creation. A whiskey sour is great, no doubt, but a whiskey sour with Hella Bitter Aromatic might just blow your mind.

Maybe it won't. Why? Maybe you're not big into a clove-forward approach to an aromatic bitter, perhaps you're preference is a different direction like Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit to compliment the acidity of a whiskey sour. Why can you not have a wrong answer? The same reason some may dislike garlic salt on their steak while another dislikes Tony Chachere. It's the spice of life, variation in flavor without completely change your subject matter (be that steak or a whiskey sour).

But I've Tried Cocktail Bitters and I Don't Like...

WAIT. Do not finish that sentence because you're probably about to say something stupid. Open a spice rack (or your cabinet where you keep them) and pull a few out... you may have white pepper, black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, paprika, salt, hot shot, tony chachere, celery seed, allspice, the list goes on and on. Do you like every one of those spices? Maybe. Do you like every one of those spices on every meal you create? Probably not. Many people probably wouldn't pair cinnamon and chicken or beef, they'll say that's the worst pairing ever while another person will write down their favorite cinnamon chicken recipe.

There are variations in spices and variations in what you may prefer them on. Don't tell me you don't like aromatic bitters because you had an overdose of angostura in some cocktail (or a cocktail made of pure angostura...I've had one, ew). Generalizing a category of aromatics leaves out peychaud and its wonderful anise-flavored finish and some of the wonderful clove of Hella Bitter Aromatic along with the cinnamon-forward flavor of Fee Brothers Aromatics. Why box yourself in?

Small batch bitters bring grapefruit, celery, cherry, walnut, lemon, lime, mint, rhubarb, cardamom, camomile and so many others that to put down an entire grouping of bitters is like saying "I like all my food bland, I don't want any spices or additional flavors above and behind the raw product."

Prove Cocktail Bitters Will Change My Life

Telling you cocktail bitters will change your life is like telling you the roller coasters in Islands of Adventure are fun. Can I truly describe "fun" without some experience of your own? You can take my word for it, or you could not, but you still haven't really changed your life or truly made up your mind in a scientific manner (here comes science again), through case study: try it.

The best way to experience bitters in your cocktail is to try cocktail bitters in your cocktail! Like spices on your food, make some sensible pairings like grapefruit with a light sweet drink and see how it adapts. Try grapefruit in a sour drink and see if it brings additional tartness or becomes lost. Add celery bitters and habanero bitters (in unison) to your Bloody Mary and do a side-by-side comparison against your normal Bloody Mary recipe, does life change for you now? You bet! Having done tasting experiments with bitters I already know the answer, but telling you isn't going to bring the experience it's going to take to make a believer.

What Cocktail Bitters Should I Try First?

Now that's the spirit. Here are a few hot sellers on awesomedrinks:

  • Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6: Because they're low cost entry, work great in cocktails and are popular for bar menu's because the price is right and the quality is high. Gary Regan knows his stuff, and that's all that matters. Works great in gin cocktails and paired with herbal liqueurs.
  • Fee Brothers Peach Bitters: Not too unlike peach schnapps, these low priced bitters will bring drinks together as well as bring peach without the excessive sweet intensity of a schnapps. Good for nuances, we sell many of these. Works well in complex cocktails that don't have excessive sweet.
  • Fee Brothers Walnut Bitters: We accidentally bought too many of these for the store and I decided to hold on to them. Turns out, they sold extremely quick and we've gone through many cases sense. A great flavored bitter for subtle muted walnut. I like them in polynesian drinks and my whiskey sours.
  • Angostura Bitters: Almost exclusively purchased by bars and I believe that is because they're so generally available for average consumers in low quantities. Your go-to cocktail bitter for anything, especially aged spirits with a reasonable price.
  • Scrappy's Gift Box Sampler #1: Sells extremely well, I believe most people want to invest in the Scrappy's flavors but don't want to do it at a $17 price tag without first knowing how they behave in their cocktails. So, instead of buying four big bottles, they try four small ones for the price of a normal single.
  • Bitters, Old Men Great in '28: Which reminds us a bit of a gin, has much of the gin like herbal flavor without the juniper and does carry a bit of grapefruit in the scent as well. While Bitters, Old Men is an extreme small batch design, these have been selling the best in their line for us.

Overall, if you want to start easy, you can do like most and head into the Fee Brothers line of bitters. As you expand out and are looking for a bit more robust and complex flavor profiles, Adam Elmegarib has some amazing recreations of classic bitter designs while Bittermens and Scrappy's seem to be the most sought after smaller batch cocktail bitter brands. 

Don't Be Afraid. Do.

Again, get out and try some of these. If you don't believe we are your store of choice, just take our knowledge as a lesson and start experimenting. You don't have to reward us for our hard work with a sale (guilt trip!) but we'd sure enjoy if you do. Go get creative!