bitters and cocktails

Bitters: what are they and why should we care?

Anybody who enjoys a good cocktail will have come across the word bitters every so often.  And if you’re a gin drinker, you need to know what they are.
Basically, these are small bottles of highly alcoholic flavouring agents, generally infused with herbs and botanicals.  Like many things, they started off life as a medicinal potion. In fact, they have a medicinal history that has seen them prescribed as cures for everything from stomach aches to hangovers. They are also often the mystery ingredient in your gin cocktail.
But what are they and why should we care?

Back to basics

At their most basic, bitters are simply neutral spirits infused with aromatics such as spices, seeds, fruits, tree bark  etc.  Some of the more traditional flavours include cassia root, orange peel, cinchona bark and cascarilla. Generally, they contain a potent mixture of water, alcohol and herbs and they come in all strengths, ranging from the strong to the very strong.
As a mark of respect for their potency, they generally come in tiny bottles and are added to cocktails in small drops. This is due to their intense flavour and industrial strength.  The most commonly referenced brand of bitters is Angostura.
But what do these tiny drops of flavour do?

Smoothing out the edges

Cocktails often contain a delicate balance of flavours, generally in the sweet and sour range.  But by adding an additional primary taste bartenders can help to smooth out a cocktail neutralising any sharp or sweet edges and adding a little balance to the mix.  This complexity adds an extra layer of character to drinks and can subtly change your entire drinking experience.

So where did this all begin?

Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians were ahead of their time.  While they were constructing their mind-boggling pyramids, they also began to experiment with medicinal herbs.  Interestingly, they were also partial to a drop of wine.  They started to infuse their wine with those bitter herbal potions.  This not only changed the flavour profile of the wine, but also claimed apparent medicinal benefits.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages and the advent of organised distilling.  Preparations with deeper combinations of flavours started to appear, seemingly influenced by these ancient medicinal practices.
By the 19th century, the Americans started to add bitters to Canary wine as a preventative medicine.  And then the cocktail arrived.

Bitters become brands

That was when things started to make real progress.  Commercial distillers began to produce their own bitters – the most famous of which is Angostura (named after a Bolivian town of the same name).  As the years moved on and tastes became increasingly accustomed to these new flavours, other brands began to appear including Peychaud’s from New Orleans. This brand is now most generally associated with the Sazerac cocktail.
You may also  be familiar with bitters appearing in classic Pink Gin or Old Fashioned recipes.  This is where Angostura continues to make its mark.

During the latter half of the 19th century, orange bitters began to make their presence felt and began to appear in more and more cocktail recipes.  And then, in 1862, legendary bartender Jerry Thomas championed them in his book “How to mix drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion”.
This was the inflection point that brought them firmly into the territory of a mainstream cocktail ingredient.

The age of the cocktail

Bitters have added subtle flavour and aroma to drinks for centuries.  They are often drunk neat, as a digestif, in both Europe and America. But with the resurging interest in craft gins and bespoke cocktails, they are continuing to add an extra layer of complexity.
You will increasingly see them appearing in a range of cocktail recipes (not least in the common and garden G&T!).
And bitters have another excellent property which should not be ignored: they make a rather unpleasant tasting but highly effective hangover cure.
These days there are a plethora of new brands on the market and more and more people are experimenting with making their own craft versions at home.
Here are some of the most well known bitters, just in case you fancy mixing up a proper
pink gin (especially if you’re expecting a giant hangover any time soon!).

Some of the most popular bitters brands (paid links)

bitters selection

Written by Steve (with a little help from Ruddles, the gin dog!)

Don’t forget to follow us on our facebook community page to join in the gin discussion.


  • 5 “go to” classic gins you can rely on
    In this new world of 1000 gins, sometimes too much choice can be your enemy.  We all know about the recent explosion of craft gins and often they can be quite expensive.  So, it’s good to have a handful of “old faithfuls” classic gins that you know you can rely on for a good, standard … Continued
  • Gin Gazpacho: for when the heat is on!
    When the heat is on and you just want something light, healthy and easy for lunch you could do worse than reach for a chilled bowl of home made Gazpacho soup.  But we started thinking about making this traditional Spanish summer soup with the help of a little gin, so we began looking for recipes … Continued
  • Home-made Pimms – put a little sunshine in your life
    We’re now well and truly into summer and the social season lies ahead of us.  In the UK we have three of the most social events of the year coming up including Wimbledon this week (where people watch tennis and drink Pimms); the Henley Royal Regatta (where boaters in straw hats row, while people drink … Continued
  • Small bottle, big label: the story behind Angostura bitters
    We recently published a little article about gin and bitters (including Angostura) – a pairing almost as old as gin itself. As cocktails become more daring and our tastes become more and more exotic, we are constantly searching for new twists and flavours to make sure we get the very best out of our drinks. … Continued

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *