Ready for more basics about bitters and cocktails? Today I’m going to give you a set of the best bitters for intermediate and advanced cocktail making at home. I selected these bitters for their versatility and how often I end up using them.
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Let me start with the caveat that each person has a unique palate. Individuals prefer certain flavors and aromas in their foods and beverages. My recommendations here are based on what I find works in many cocktails and gives a basic flexibility in flavor profiles as you create drinks at home.
So let’s get to it.
In the last segment I covered categories of bitters, what can go wrong with bitters, and tips and tricks for using cocktail bitters at home. We started with a basic set of bitters, Angostura, Peychaud’s, orange bitters and a flavoring bitters:
These bitters allow you to make many of the classics, an old fashioned, a whiskey sour, a Manhattan, a champagne cocktail, a Sazerac, a martini, and many, many more. But they’re not the end of the story.
Now, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of bitters from around the country (and world) you can use to add flavor or complement and bind the cocktail you’re making. They sky’s the limit!
How to Choose the Best Bitters for a Cocktail
Experimentation is key. However, you’d probably rather not make a cocktail 10 times before settling on the right amount and combination of bitters. Before constructing your cocktail, evaluate the flavor and aromatic components of the cocktail and your goal for the cocktail. Here’s the process:
First Evaluate Flavors
Think about all the flavors in the cocktail. Don’t just think “bourbon,” think about the specific components of flavor you want to emphasize. Do you want to highlight baking spices, caramel, or fruits? Do you want to pull out oak and char? If you’re working with rum do you want to highlight sweet caramel or toffee notes or are you wanting to highlight the funkiness or freshness of it?
Take a moment to reflect on which notes of the spirit you want to highlight. If your answer is “Heather, I have no idea about all that. Whiskey just tastes like whiskey!” That’s fine! In that case, settle on the other flavors you are adding and choose a base spirit you know will complement those flavors.
Evaluate those flavors that you are going to be focused on and what you want your final product to taste like.
Decide the Taste for your Cocktail
Then take a moment to consider how you want your cocktail to taste. Once you know that, you can figure out if you need a bitter than binds existing flavors together or if you’re missing a flavor component.
For example, let’s say I want to create a cocktail that tastes like a lemon tart. I need lemon, a sweetener, and spirit (whiskey, of course for the baking spices). Those are elements I know I will use. But I also want to have the flavor of the graham cracker/pecan crust.
I know the whiskey will add to vanilla and slight baking spice notes (as would rum, but it would make the cocktail sweeter). I know the lemon juice will add tartness. For sweetener I would either use a combination of simple syrup and limoncello, or lemon simple syrup. But I want that hint of nuttiness. My choice would be to go with some nutty bitters, like Fee Brothers’ Black Walnut bitters and to choose a whiskey that has a noticeable nut flavor to it.
Tip: Sampler Packs are the way to go if the pack has quite a few flavors you don’t yet have on your bar. I have bought and loved the Crude Bitters, Scrappy’s Bitters and Black Cloud Bitters sampler packs a couple years ago. I still have bitters left in most of them.
Intermediate-Level Bitters for Cocktails at Home
Starting with the basic bitters, you’ve got a good foundation, but if you want to up your cocktail game, adding bitters to your collection is an easy way to increase the flavor palate of the cocktails you can create.
Let’s add some complexity to the mix by adding a couple of categories of bitters.
You’ll see that I’ve got chocolate bitters here. Chocolate is useful in so many cocktails, not just sweet ones, but in a way to add an earthy, cocoa depth to the flavors of something. If you’re a chocoholic like me, chocolate bitters can do amazing things in manhattans, martinis, smashes and sours. I suggest the Bitter Truth Spiced Chocolate bitters. These bitters have deep, dark chocolate in them and a little bit of spice/cinnamon.
There are also chocolate bitters that have heat or spice in them, like the Bittermen’s Xocolotl Mole bitters. It takes a bit more practice to use the mole bitters in cocktails effectively because you balance the chocolate flavor AND the heat of the bitters. I also have Scrappy’s chocolate bitters, which are amazing. Fee Brothers’ makes a very reasonable tasty chocolate bitters as well with a touch of spice to them, but not any heat.
In addition, adding another fruit to your bitters spice rack for making cocktails increases your cocktail flexibility. I find Woodford Reserve’s Spiced Cherry bitters very useful in both Manhattans and old fashioneds. If cherry doesn’t excite you, choose another fruit that will go well with both aged and unaged spirits.
Given the amount of whiskey cocktails in my house it’s unsurprising that I have a nut bitter added here to the intermediate list. Nut flavors abound in whisky and rum. I even find nut flavors in some agave spirits. Having a bitter that can pull those notes forward in a cocktail is critical. I have Fee Brothers’ Black Walnut Bitters listed as my current favorite, but many bitters companies make nutty ones. Crude Bitters has a Pecan Magnolia Habanero which is tantalizing and mysterious, and adds spicy heat to the cocktail along with nut and floral notes.
Smoke bitters intrigue me. The addition of smoke elicits memories of charred barrels, outdoor cookouts, and campfire smoke. In some cocktails, adding the smoke bitters and garnishing with a lightly charred spice – like cinnamon or star anise – raises the bar, tying notes from aged spirits to other elements in the cocktail. Here I’ve got one of my absolutely favorites (you can tell, it’s more than half gone and it’s my second bottle) Hella Bitters Smoked Chili.
I also love Old Forester’s Smoked Cinnamon bitters. If you’re looking for a bitter with a little smoke without the spicy heat of the Hella bitters mentioned above, try the Smoked Cinnamon bitters. They’re fantastic in fall and winter cocktails with a smoked garnish – especially an old fashioned. These kinds of bitters contribute well to savory cocktails, too.
When you progress beyond the basics to start riffing on the flavors and styles of the classics I believe having more options for aromatics is critical. Here I’ve got two of my favorites because I quite simply can’t choose between the two of them. They both make fantastic old fashioneds and Manhattans. Both also play very well with both fruit cocktails, coffee, and chocolate drinks, and can round tiki drink like nobody’s business. They’re the Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters and the Bittermen’s Elemakule ‘Tiki’ bitters.
Ready for more?
Advanced Bitters for Making (Whiskey) Cocktails
Picking out a set of “advanced” bitters was difficult simply because by the time you have both the bitters from the beginner and intermediate sets you’ve got a broad palate to create cocktails. My criteria for picking the more advanced bitters were flavors that were either more delicate or more difficult to pair effectively with other elements. Or ones that can easily be lost in the noise of more aggressive flavors in a cocktail.
I’ve put Crude’s ‘Lindsay’ in here with its pecan, magnolia, habanero flavors because working with spicy elements like habanero can easily overwhelm the balance of a cocktail. On the plus side, in small amounts they can had a mysterious heat to the finish of each sip. But used too aggressively they can overpower a cocktail. It’s a good thing these come with a dropper.
Hella Bitter’s Smoked Chili also falls in this category, but we covered it earlier.
I haven’t added florals yet, although there are many reasons to have them in your bitters set. Floral bitters do wonders in sours and play very well in gin cocktails like a martini. They can be used to great effect to build the floral element of a base spirit, or to marry well with a garnish whose aromatics you want to employ.
There are several I love. Scrappy’s Lavender bitters are a wonder of lavender scent, and the smell is heady just adding them to the shaker. Crude’s ‘Bitterless Marriage’ bitters delight me in bourbon drinks with their hibiscus, lavender, and oak aromatics.
The downside to florals? They lose when pitted against strong flavors or spicy tastes. You can easily lose them in a cocktail if they’re not balanced. You might think they’d do well in hot tea drinks, but warm drinks make bitters much more aromatic and fragrant. That’s not always a good thing. Proceed mindfully and use in small quantities in heated cocktails.
Given the number of aged spirits I play with, adding wood notes through bitters can be effective. However, many woody bitters are very dry and taste tannic. If you’re working with a high proof, barrel-forward spirit, adding these kinds of bitters can overemphasize that element. However, used judiciously, in something like an old fashioned or a highball, they can elevate the flavors and aromatics of the cocktail. Two I Iove are the Black Cloud Charred Cedar bitters and the Old Forester Smoked Cinnamon bitters mentioned above. The cedar bitters are extremely strong. Only a few drops are needed.
Adding saline solution or salty bitters enhances the flavors in a cocktail. Salt heightens flavor and enhances sweetness in foods. Think about how much better chocolate chip cookies are with a little sea salt added. Salt also cuts down bitterness.
It does the same thing in cocktails. I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much the first time I used Crude’s ‘Pooter’ bitters with their smoke and salt flavor, but they pack a punch. Adding salt and a small touch of smoke can intensify flavors and bring out oak/char notes in aged spirits.
If you prefer, you can just make a saline solution rather than add bitters. Just make sure you create a saline solution rather than add straight salt crystals for better control over flavor.
Some bitters, like this Chinese Five Spice bitter from Bar Keep require careful application. Bitters with strong, aggressive flavors easily overwhelm cocktails. However, in a cocktail that is spirit forward with a high alcohol content they can match beautifully with flavors already in the cocktail.
Others, like Scrappy’s cardamom, are wonderfully intense and must be added in small increments because they’re a flavor not everyone enjoys. But in small amounts, they can wow you in a cocktail, providing a small hint of the essence of cardamom to build a suggestion of fall and winter baking, or middle eastern cuisine. I’ve used them in the cocktail recipe below
Now You Know How to Be a Bitters Expert
WHEW – that was a lot about bitters!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts about bitters, basics of how to use them and sets of bitters to add to your home bar set. Just remember that bitters are the spice rack for cocktails, and it’s all about balance.
So, go get some bitters and start playing and experiments. Send me pictures or hashtag me at #cocktailcontessa to let me know what works.
I’ll leave you with the cocktail I sipped on while writing this – with both Scrappy’s cardamom bitters and their grapefruit bitters. Enjoy!
Did you try it? I love getting unsolicited DRINK pics from you when you try out a cocktail. Send them along to me on social media. Join me on my social channels at @cocktail_contessa on Instagram and Cocktail Contessa on Facebook and use the hashtags #cocktailcontessa and #bourbonismycomfortfood.
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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:
You probably already have these, but you may need them, too:
Hibiscus Ginger Kentucky Mule
- 1 ½ oz bourbon – 100 proof
- ½ oz hibiscus ginger simple syrup
- ½ oz lime juice
- 16 drops Scrappy’s grapefruit bitters
- 8 drops Scrappy’s cardamom bitters
- Ginger beer
- Garnish: mint and a flower
- Combine all ingredients except ginger beer to a highball glass or mule mug and stir briefly. Fill with ice, top with ginger beer and give it a quick swirl. Garnish with mint and a pretty edible/safe flower if you have one.