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Cocktail Bitters 101: The Essential Guide to Mixology’s Often Forgotten Staple


A collection of cocktail bitters

If you’ve ever ordered or made a whiskey cocktail, you probably have some concept of the necessity of bitters, which appear on the ingredients list of nearly every whiskey cocktail. But have you ever wondered what exactly bitters are and which ones you should be using in your drinks? We’ve got you covered.

Bitters are alcoholic solutions made from herbs, spices and other plant materials. They have been used since ancient times to add flavor and complexity to recipes and drinks.

They are often added to cocktails as a garnish or ingredient but can also be found in baked goods, soups, sauces, custards, jams, marinades and more. Even though they are alcoholic, they are simply considered an ingredient in most countries since the alcohol content is so low in each serving due to the small amount used.

In terms of flavor, they vary based on type but are often bitter, spicy or both. Bitters have powerful, overwhelming flavors, which is why they are used sparingly in cocktails like the Manhattan or Old Fashioned.

Bitters vs. Aromatic Bitters

Bitters are flavored with various herbs, roots and other plants, while aromatic bitters typically contain gentian root, which gives them a strong, bittersweet flavor.
Bitters are great at adding complexity and nuance to mixed drinks, while aromatic bitters are used to give drinks an intense flavor boost.

Best Bitters to Use in Cocktails

Bitters come in almost endless variations, but we’re focusing on the three most popular: Aromatic Bitters, Orange Bitters, and Cocoa bitters. But again, beyond these core varieties of bitters, there is an incredible range of flavors to choose from so bartenders, mixologists and cocktail enthusiasts can get creative with their drinks.

Aromatic Bitters

Two of the most popular types of aromatic bitters are Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. These top the list in terms of recognition, familiarity and culinary use.

Angostura Bitters

These classic bitters were first produced in Venezuela in 1824. They are made with a blend of herbs and spices, which gives them their distinctive flavor. Angostura bitters are commonly used in whiskey sours and Manhattans.

House of Angostura’s concentrated bitters is made from a blend of herbs and spices sourced from grasses, roots, leaves and fruits in Trinidad and Tobago.

Other than cocktails, these bitters are also used for cleansing the palate and aiding digestion.

Peychaud’s Bitters

These bitters were developed in New Orleans in the 1830s by Antoine Peychaud, a Creole apothecary.

Today produced by the American Sazerac Company, Peychaud’s bitters have an intensely sweet and spicy smell, with strong notes of anise and faint hints of mint. Apart from being the star in many cocktails, these bitters are an important part of the famous Sazerac cocktail and are produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Orange Bitters

As you might guess from their name, orange bitters are made of oranges (as well as other citrus fruits).

They were first created in England in the 18th century and became popular in the U.S. during the early 1900s. Orange bitters add a citrus flavor to cocktails and pair particularly well with rye whiskey. Orange bitters are now available from producers such as the House of Angostura, although they used to be rather difficult to find until recently.

Generally speaking, this cocktail flavoring consists of Seville orange peels, cardamom, caraway seed, coriander, anise and burnt sugar in an alcohol base.

Orange bitters are an excellent choice in an Old Fashioned, which is traditionally served with an orange peel.

Cocoa Bitters

Cocoa bitters are relatively new to the bitters scene and have risen to popularity with cocktails like the espresso martini or adding a twist to a classic like the chocolate old fashioned.

These bitters work well with sweet vermouths and aged spirits such as whiskey, rum or cognac. Additionally, they can be used as an ingredient in desserts and main courses for a distinctive touch.

Espresso Bitters

Like cocoa bitters, espresso bitters are made from coffee beans and other chocolate ingredients. They have a strong coffee flavor that pairs well with bolder whiskeys such as scotch or Irish whiskey.

Espresso bitters can be used in classic cocktails such as the Irish Coffee or the Rusty Nail or in creative new drinks such as the Espresso Manhattan or the Irish Old Fashioned.

Whether you’re a cocktail connoisseur or just getting started mixing drinks at home, having a few bottles of bitters on hand is always a good idea.

Bitters add depth of flavor and a touch of bitterness to balance sweetness, making them an essential ingredient in many classic whiskey cocktails. The next time you’re looking to mix something special, reach for one (or more) of these bitters for whiskey cocktails. Furthermore, experiment with the effect different bitters have on your favorite cocktail. For just a drop or two, the effect may be more pronounced than you expect! 

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Madison Kopta is an editor at Whiskey Raiders. As a Northern California native and mom of four, Madison spends much of her time enjoying the great outdoors with her family. From camping to keeping an eagle eye out for Bigfoot, you can find Madison in nature, enjoying a glass of whiskey with her husband.