Bitters are perhaps the most misunderstood player in the cocktail world. (For starters, they’re not always bitter!) Here’s a 101 on how to use them in your own cocktails and mocktails.
Though I’m a cocktail aficionado, my go-to summer drink contains only the tiniest bit of booze. I make my own seltzer, add a half teaspoon of syrup from my beloved Italian cherries, and add a few dashes of Fee Brothers peach bitters. My mocktail doesn’t have a name, but it is floral and slightly sweet, a pleasant shade of pink, and just the thing to serve non-boozers, pregnant friends, and anyone who wants to hydrate, fast.
Bitters are distillations of herbs, barks, flowers, roots, seeds, and plants, typically sold in small bottles and used by the dash. The “very concentrated form of botanicals”—as Lucinda Sterling, managing partner of New York City cocktail bar Middle Branch, explained—act like “salt on a steak, and help bring out flavor” in cocktails. They are known to aid digestion, and although they are usually alcoholic, one typically only adds a few drops to a drink. In fact, bitters and seltzer, or “bits and bubs,” as some call it, is making a comeback among those who are taking a break from higher-ABV drinks.
Because their popularity in cocktails has boomed, nowadays you can find bitters in nearly every flavor under the sun—molé, smoked orange, Sriracha, and even popcorn. But the basic bucket categories are aromatics, citrus, herbal, fruit, and nuts.
The most popular and well-known among aromatic bitters is Angostura, that iconic little bottle you’ll see kicking around most bars. It’s key to a classic Old Fashioned cocktail, among others, as it adds a bracing, slight bitterness. Some bartenders dash it on top of egg white cocktails to counter “barnyardy” elements, too.
Next in line in popularity is Peychaud’s, a key part of a classic New Orleans Sazerac. Sterling notes that this is one of the many bitters that is “sort of a misnomer—its sweet or aromatic aspect stands out more.”
Beyond Angostura and Peychaud’s, think about expanding your bitters cabinet, especially in other categories. I suggest buying at least one citrus bitters like peach or orange for mocktails as well as cocktails. Sterling is a fan of the brands Fee Brothers, Cocktail Punk (smoked orange bitters), and Brooklyn Hemispherical (Sriracha bitters), among others. Think about smoked orange bitters “in lieu of using mezcal or smoky Scotch,” suggests Sterling, or make a smoked orange margarita because “anything smoked and fruity goes together.” Sriracha bitters can lend a spicy element to a cocktail, she says, so you wouldn’t have to add a hot pepper.
Bitters are a way to expand the dimension of a drink—even a non-boozy one. So snag a bottle for your home bar, and start playing!
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.