Bitters are either an essential cocktail ingredient or a type of popular European digestive. As a result, it can often be confusing so we’ve decided to cover both together.
In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know about bitters:
- What Are Bitters?
- Types Of Bitters
- Bitters History
- What Do Bitters Taste Like?
- How To Drink Bitters: How Much Is A Dash?
- Similar Drinks & Substitutes
- Bitters Health Benefits
Use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all.
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What Are Bitters?
Bitters are alcoholic solutions that have been heavily infused with herbs and spices, which results in their eponymous flavour. There are many varieties of bitters and they can be made using either distilled alcohol or wine as a base.
Throughout most of their history, bitters were consumed as herbal remedies. However, they eventually became popular beverages as either digestifs or cocktail ingredients.
Types Of Bitters
Although there are lots of different types of bitters, we’ve broken them down into just two general categories:
You can use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read about them all.
What Are Cocktail or Non-Potable Bitters?
When people refer to bitters, they’re either English blokes down at the pub or they’re usually talking about cocktails. As we’ll explore in further detail in the history section, these were often initially created as herbal remedies.
However, they soon became indispensable when cocktails became popular during the late 19th century. Thanks to their strong and distinctively bitter characteristics, just a drop could completely alter a cocktail’s flavour by adding both depth and complexity.
Nevertheless, much of their remedial heritage has stood the test of time aside from just their ingredients. For instance, they’re often referred to as “non-potable” bitters in order to distinguish themselves from their digestif cousins.
Since it isn’t intended that you drink them neat, some countries don’t class them as beverages. Consequently, they’re sometimes exempt from certain regulations. For this reason, you can still find them in some pharmacies and grocery stores. You can even buy them on Amazon!
What Are Angostura Bitters?
Although some people may typically prefer Peychaud, Angostura is by far the most popular bitters brand. Founded in Venezuela during the 1830s, it was originally created as a medicinal product for soldiers by Simon Bolívar’s Surgeon-General, Dr Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert.
The name can be somewhat misleading as it’s sometimes presumed that it’s named after the angostura tree, a key ingredient for some bitters. However, Angostura was the name of the town in which it was created, which is today known as Ciudad Bolívar. In fact, it contains no angostura tree bark at all!
Six years after Dr Siegert’s death in 1870, his younger brother and son moved its facilities to Port of Spain, Trinidad, where it is still produced today.
Angostura’s recipe remains a closely guarded secret. Yet, it has a distinctively spicy taste consisting of notes of clove, cinnamon, burned sugar, and liquorice. For this reason, it remains one of the most popular cocktail ingredients in the world.
What Are Orange Bitters?
Although Angostura is also a leading producer of orange bitters, it has only been making it since 2008! Sometimes it’s claimed that orange bitters have existed for many centuries while it has also been suggested that it was only created in the 1880s.
Nevertheless, it was often homemade using recipes old recipes until the late 20th century since orange bitters were impossible to find in the USA.
The first commercially available product was Regan’s Orange Bitters created by mixologist Gary Regan in the 1990s. Another popular choice that closely followed is Fee Bros West India Orange Bitters. Meanwhile, a German brand called The Bitter Truth launched its orange bitters in 2006.
Orange bitters are produced by steeping orange peels and spices like cardamom and gentian root with burnt sugar in grain alcohol. They also often contain other ingredients like caraway seeds and anise.
Since each brand offers a slightly different flavour, it’s not uncommon for mixologists to blend them together when making cocktails. For instance, a “Feegan’s” mixes Regan’s and Fee Bros orange bitters as the former is heavy on spices while the latter is particularly sweet.
What Are Digestive or Potable Bitters?
While “bitters” typically refers to those used for cocktails these days, its history as a digestif is far longer. As mentioned above, infusing alcohol with herbs and spices is an ancient practice. These are occasionally referred to as “potable” bitters since they are still predominantly made to drink neat.
Today, the popularity of bitters as digestifs has generally waned in favour of other spirits like cognac or grappa. Indeed, some have even faded into obscurity. However, there are some that have persisted through the years.
For instance, Italian amaro, which mustn’t be confused with amaretto, is a large family of beverages that includes Campari, Aperol, and even vermouth! Meanwhile, German Kräuterlikör is a variety of schnaps that includes Jägermeister and Killepitsch.
Similarly, French “amers” are particularly diverse with gentian-derived bitters like Suze and Salers as well as cinchona quinquina wine that includes Lillet and Byrrh. Finally, some varieties of Scandinavian akvavit can be packed with herbs and spices, which results in an intensively bitter flavour.
Although some digestive bitters are still enjoyed neat, many have survived thanks to their use in cocktails. The bitter qualities of beverages like Lillet or Campari often provided a similar taste modifying effect as cocktail bitters.
The recent chemical analysis of Ancient Egyptian clay jars has revealed that infusing alcohol with bitter herbs has been practised since at least 3150 BC. Furthermore, it was a technique often used in Asia by both the Chinese and Indians since 1000 BC.
Although the technique has persisted even into the modern era, the Umayyad conquest of Hispania introduced distillation to Europe in the early 8th century. Since distilled alcohol acts as a more effective preservative, it soon became used instead of or even as well as wine.
Significant advances in pharmacognosy, which is the study of medicinal herbs, had been made by the Renaissance. It was a widely held belief at the time that strong alcohol offered health benefits so the two were often combined to create potent medicines.
During this period, several well-known modern-day alcoholic spirits began to emerge. For instance, the Dutch infused alcohol with jenever while the Scandinavians preferred to make akvavit with herbs like fennel, dill, and caraway.
Nevertheless, aromatised fortified wines were still prevalent and some were even taking their own form. In the Italian Piedmont region, a merchant called Jeronimo Ruscelli was making a wormwood-based wine that would eventually become known as “vermouth”.
Elixirs & Cure-Alls
Bitters as we recognise them today began to emerge during the 19th century with the rising popularity of cure-all medicines that were meant to fortify the body.
On some occasions, they were created with specific uses in mind. In French-speaking African colonies, for example, chemists created quinquina by experimenting with infusing wine with cinchona root to prevent troops from catching malaria.
Similarly, the aforementioned Dr Siegert created his bitters for Simon Bolívar Venezuelan troops in the 1830s. Meanwhile, Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole apothecary from what is now modern-day Haiti, created his bitters during the same period after settling in New Orleans.
With no federal drug regulations in place, such elixirs became quite prevalent in the USA. They were often marketed to be able to cure most ailments from coughs and colds to jaundice and stomach complaints.
The Rise Of Cocktail Bitters
By the mid-19th century, cocktails had firmly taken hold in British and American drinking culture. Prominent New York bartender, Jeremiah “Jerry” P. Thomas, is often credited with first using bitters in his concoctions.
Indeed, their use can be found in his 1862 book “How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion”.
In 1906, the US government introduced the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Food and Drug Administration soon followed in 1916. Nevertheless, the more genuine bitters survived and were still retailed by pharmacists even after the 18th amendment was signed in 1919.
In fact, since they aren’t considered beverages themselves, they often thrived during Prohibition. Some venues such as the Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub in Wisconsin even sold shots of bitters as “stomach tonics for medicinal purposes”.
What Do Bitters Taste Like?
Unless you’re visiting Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub mentioned above or you’re doing a Bartender’s Handshake, the chances are slim that you’ll be tasting pure cocktails bitters.
Instead, they’re typically used to modify the flavour of an existing drink. However, digestive are often enjoyed neat in Europe!
As you will have learned from the above, they’re not quite the same thing. Nevertheless, they’re all brought together by a unifying theme: they’re bitter. After all, it’s in the name!
The bitter properties are often brought on by botanical ingredients like cinchona, gentian, sarsaparilla, and even bitter oranges. This primary flavour is then accompanied by other ingredients that can produce different overall tastes.
For instance, bitters may include spices, tart citrus fruit or even sweet ingredients. Among the most popular cocktail bitters, Peychaud’s is tangy with an anise accent while Angostura features liquorice and bittersweet burnt sugar.
On the other hand, digestive bitters often have a heavy herbal accent as can be seen in Kräuterlikör like Jägermeister.
How To Drink Bitters: How Much Is A Drop Vs A Dash?
There’s no wrong or right way to enjoy bitters and serving suggestions depend on the variety. Digestive bitters can be served neat, but they’re often chilled to take the edge off the botanical ingredients. Occasionally, they may be served on the rocks with ice.
Some digestive bitters are also traditionally diluted in water. For example, spring water is typically added to French Suze or Salers Gentiane.
Nevertheless, even digestive bitters are popular cocktail ingredients. As mentioned earlier, both vermouth and Campari are technically varieties of Italian amaro bitters.
These are usually served in shot portions, but cocktail bitters are very potent. Therefore, they’re often used in drop or dash measurements. Most cocktail bitters are supplied in small bottles that feature millilitre droppers to easily dispense the right amount.
However, when a recipe calls for a “dash”, the measurement is far from standardised! In some cases, it’s argued that a drop and a dash are one and the same or at least one produced by a sharp and vigorous shake.
Meanwhile, others claim that a drop and a dash are completely different. Bartenders may often argue that a dash is 8, 10, or up to 15 drops. Sometimes, it’s claimed that it’s 1/8th of a teaspoon.
Technically speaking, a single dash is regarded as 1/32 of a liquid ounce or 0.92 ml. Given that a drop should be 1 ml, they’re likely the same. Nevertheless, it appears that how much is a question of personal preference.
Therefore, it’s best to experiment by working up the amount of bitters until you find the right level of flavour for you. If you’re making a drink for someone else, that might be challenging. Yet, with a little practice, it’s easy enough to figure out!
Similar Drinks & Bitters Substitutes
Since bitters can incorporate so many different types of beverages, it can be regarded as a large family in which there are plenty of substitutes.
If you don’t have any cocktail bitters close to hand, you can instead opt for digestive bitters and vice versa. Of course, you’ll need to recalculate the proportions as a dash of Campari isn’t quite as heady as a dash of Angostura.
Otherwise, you might not have either and need a quick solution. In that case, it’s quite easy to make your own improvised bitters at home. Mixing spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, diced citrus peels with a few teaspoons of vodka or rum is a suitable quick solution.
However, the best results are when they’re allowed to steep. In our guide to how bitters are made, we offer a more detailed walkthrough on how to make your own batch at home.
Otherwise, there’s no real substitute for bitters. Indeed, they’re essentially their own breed. That said, if you’re short on bitters, consider other strongly-flavoured drinks to modify the taste of a cocktail. One possible solution is absinthe.
Bitters Health Benefits
As you will have now learned, bitters were originally created as herbal remedies over centuries of apothecarial development. While their benefits at the time were probably exaggerated, they wouldn’t have persisted if they didn’t offer any benefits at all.
Even today, people still take a daily dose of bitters – often with a spoonful of sugar because it helps the medicine go down.
The effectiveness of a bitters’ healthy qualities depends largely on the main bittering agent used to make it. We already touched on gentian, which is known for cancer-fighting characteristics. Similarly, Meanwhile, liquorice root is an anti-inflammatory, and sarsaparilla helps liver function.
However, it’s difficult to gauge the health benefits of modern commercial bitters. In most cases, the recipes are “closely-guarded secrets” or simply not disclosed aside from some basic nutritional information. Some cocktail bitters probably use thickening agents, sugar, and synthetic flavours nowadays.
The best approach would be to make bitters yourself if you want a healthy option. As mentioned earlier, our guide to how bitters are made will walk you through the process.
Bitters Gluten, Carbs, & Calories
Since cocktail bitters are used in such small quantities, the calories they contain shouldn’t be much of a concern. Nevertheless, a half teaspoon does pack 12 calories, which can add up quite quickly. Similarly, it will feature 2g of carbohydrates.
Meanwhile, digestive bitters various but generally, you can expect around 60 calories and 16 grams per 1 Oz (30 ml) shot of Italian amaro.
In both cases, bitters are often assumed to be gluten-free, but it’s surprisingly unclear. Therefore, if you have Celiac’s disease or a sensitivity to gluten, it’s probably best to find one that clearly states that it is indeed gluten-free.
Now that you have read our main bitters guide, discover more of our related resources!