If you’re new to making cocktails at home, even if we are in the sixth month of a pandemic, you want to be able to recreate classics in your home bar. There are hundreds of bitters out there and I’ll help you navigate the waters to find the best bitters for cocktails at home – specifically bourbon and whiskey cocktails.
In part one of this series, Bitters and Bourbon (Whiskey) – All About Bitters and How to Use them in Cocktails, I covered a little about what bitters are, their history and their function in cocktails. Head over there for part one if you haven’t already checked it out. I’ll let you know now, that I cover an intermediate and advanced set of bitters in the next post. (Whew, I really love to talk about bitters, can you tell?)
As a quick recap, remember that bitters are the spice rack for a mixologist. They add flavor, create balance and bind flavors together into a cohesive whole in a balanced cocktail. They counter both sweetness and acidity – and so are important to bourbon and whiskey drinks because they can overcome the sweetness inherent in the spirit.
In addition, with so many whiskey drinks taking advantage of citrus flavors, they balance out sours as well. For the sake of this discussion, bitters=balance.
Categories of Bitters
Given the decimation of the bitters industry after Prohibition it’s a bit of a miracle that we are in such a bitters renaissance in the last 10 to 15 years. Small bitters companies have sprung up across the country and the world to create unique and intriguing bitters to elevate our drinking culture. (Side note, two of my favorite sampler sets from smaller companies are from Crude Bitters and Scrappy’s Bitters.)
In general, there are a few categories bitters fall into
- Aromatic – these bitters are the backbone of mixology. Standards such as Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters fall into this category, as well as newer aromatics from almost every small bitters company out there. These bitters drive balance and flavor through the use of the dark, bitter, earthly notes of classic bitters ingredients like cassia, gentian, orro and cinchona. They often include some other spices like clove or cinnamon, and you’ll get some of those notes on the nose of the aromatic bitters. In general, as a category, I think of aromatic bitters as elements that add depth and deeper spice and earthy notes to a cocktail. They bind the cocktail together using hints of aromas present in other ingredients.
- Flavoring – these bitters have one or two (or more) aromatic themes or flavors focused in their taste and smell. For example, chocolate bitters often use cacao nibs to impart deep, bittersweet chocolate flavors to bitters. Others might use nuts or coffee. Some use gentler notes such as fruit in an apricot or peach bitters. While flavoring bitters still contain that essence of bitterness, when added to cocktails or drinks, in dilution they present the flavors or smells of those ingredients.
- Citrus – there are many, many citrus-forward bitters in the market. Fee Brothers and Regan’s orange bitters were two of the first citrus bitters. Now you can find everything from grapefruit to meyer lemon and pineapple in between flavoring your bitters. Bartenders commonly use orange bitters in bourbon and whiskey cocktails. Bourbon and rye often taste and smell slightly of orange peel, so the bitters bring out those latent flavors in the whiskey.
All three of these categories are essential in creating cocktails and making sure your bourbon cocktails have balance. In addition, each of these categories pulls out flavors in whiskies that are perceptible: the aromatics of spices like cinnamon, the flavors of chocolate or banana, or the bright notes of orange peel. Because they can match with flavors in the base spirit, they tame down the sweetness in bourbon and use the other aromas and notes to match with other elements in the cocktail.
What Can Go Wrong with Bitters in Cocktails?
So much can go wrong, but there are two main things that can go wrong with bitters.
Adding too much! Bitters are heavily concentrated tinctures and infusions, even a single drop contains a huge amount of aroma and flavor. If you’re ever in doubt how concentrated, place a single drop of bitters on your finger or the back of your hand and taste it. Even a single drop packs a powerful punch of flavor.
Adding the wrong bitters. Because they are concentrated flavor, the bitters you use need to match the other elements of the cocktail. Think about the flavors you’re using in your cocktail. Are the flavors present in your bitters going to mesh well with your cocktail? A light, fruity cocktail probably won’t benefit from a Chinese Five Spice bitters or celery bitters. Likewise an apricot or peach bitter would be overwhelmed in a cocktail like a boulevardier or one with dark, earthy flavors.
Sometimes when I’m creating a cocktail, I’ll look up food recipes with those flavors and see what kinds of smells and flavors go together. I also have an amazing book called The Flavor Bible which consists of lists of every imaginable ingredient and references flavors and ingredients that pair well with it. Think about why the flavors work together in the recipe, and see if it might translate to a bitter or flavoring element you’ll be adding to the cocktail.
Tips on Using Bitters in Cocktails
After making so many cocktails, there are some tips I’ll pass on to you. Some of these I’ve learned the hard way. Some are just common sense.
- Err on the low side. You can always add more. If you’re not sure how much to add, start with a dash or two, taste the cocktail, then see if you need to add more.
- If it’s a dasher bottle, note that the dashes will be smaller in volume when the bottle is new and full. When more of the bottle is empty, more of the bitters come out in each dash. Take that into account as you build your cocktails.
- Note drops vs dashes in recipes. Some bitters come in dispensers for dashes. Others come with eyedroppers. Don’t mistake a drop for a dash. You don’t want to add 12 dashes of a bitter in place of 12 drops! Yuck!
- To see if bitters are compatible with a drink or ingredient, use the sniff test. Take a smell of both of the elements at the same time, or just sniff one then the other and see if they smell good together. Since aroma is the primary component of flavor if they bind well in terms of smell, they will likely be complementary flavors.
- If I’m still unsure of a combination of flavors, occasionally I’ll make a teeny mini cocktail. I’ll put a tiny splash of the cocktail elements in a shot glass with a dash of the bitters to see how they all meld together. The balance will be off, but I can see if the flavors work together.
A Basic Set of Bitters for Home Bartending
So what bitters do you buy when you start out with cocktails?
I’ll make it easy for the basic set – you probably have one or two of these already. For the most basic cocktails, you’ll need an aromatic, a citrus and a flavoring. One from each of the main categories above.
I suggest the following:
Angostura – the bitters you’ll find in any bar worldwide. It’s the gold standard for aromatic bitters. Many classic cocktails are built around the flavor profile angostura provides. If there’s one bitter that you’ll be most likely to need as you start making cocktails it’s Angostura.
Peychaud’s – we talked about Peychaud’s a bit last time and these bitters are still considered aromatic, but they’ve got a little citrus and some licorice flavors in them. They’re also a little lighter and are considered crucial for some classic cocktails like the Sazerac, the Vieux Carre and the Seelbach.
Orange Bitters – I’m partial to Fee Brothers’ or Woodford Reserve Orange Bitters, but Regan’s Bitters are also excellent and a standard in most bars. They’re all slightly different, and eventually, like me, you’ll likely have 4 or 5 different bottles of orange bitters to play with in your cocktails.
Flavored Bitters/Alternate Aromatic – There are so many great aromatic bitters available now, I think for your first set of bitters you could branch out and pick a great aromatic or flavored bitter. You can choose a flavor you love, (chocolate or cherry comes to mind if you’re working with whiskey cocktails), or go for a different aromatic. I love Old Forester’s Bohemian bitters. They’re full of cherries, pepper and chocolate and match superbly in bourbon cocktails.
I hate to leave you without a cocktail since we’re talking about bitters so here’s my take on a Perfect Manhattan, using both orange and cherry bitters. Cheers!
Recommended Bar Tools
You don’t need every slick, beautiful bar tool out there, but there are several I’ll recommend. (As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. However, that does not affect the cost of the items below.) My favorite pieces usually come from the Cocktail Kingdom section of Amazon:
You may already have these bar essentials, but just in case:
Balanced Perfection – A Quarantine Perfect Manhattan
- 1 oz bourbon – Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled in Bond
- 1 oz rye – Wilderness Trail Rye or Willett 3 year old Rye
- ½ oz sweet vermouth
- ½ oz dry vermouth
- 5 drops Woodford’s spiced cherry bitters
- 5 drops Woodford’s orange bitters
- Garnish: orange peel and cherry
- Combine whiskies, vermouth and bitters in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir until chilled and well-combined, at least 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass and garnish with orange and/or cherry.