Spicy bitters don’t need to be a mystery. Learning how to use them can be a fun exercise in experimenting with both flavor and mouthfeel. They can be so firey just a drop can be detected in an 8 ounce drink. Or they can be a subtle addition that adds a subtle increase in heat a few seconds after you swallow.
Collecting bitters is a pastime of anyone who loves cocktails, no matter the spirit. Bitters are the spice rack of cocktails. Not only do they provide balance to sweet and sour elements in a cocktail, but they also add flavor and mouthfeel. (For the start of my 3 part article on the history of bitters and how to use them in bourbon head here.)
But spicy bitters can be a conundrum. Bitters made from peppers or herbs with capsaicin generate that burning feeling in your mouth and esophagus when you eat or drink something with it. Some people love that sensation, but for others, it can be too much. So how do you use spicy bitters in a cocktail? First, you need to taste them!
How to Taste Test Spicy Bitters
Taste-test the bitters in 4 to 6 ounces of carbonated water. Start with one drop and see how much flavor that adds to the water. If you can’t detect it, increase a drop or two until you can taste the heat in your mouth. It should taste like warmth or slight burning of the palate.
As you taste test, note two things: 1) how much heat it adds per drop or dash of bitters and 2) what flavor it adds – some spicy bitters add bitters and pepper flavor in addition to that heat. Also, note any smoky flavor or aromas.
There are three general types of spicy bitters: ones that just focus on adding heat to the cocktail, ones that add both heat and smoke, and ones that add heat and pepper/citrus flavors. Each one has its benefits in a drink. Let’s explore that below.
Hot Bitters that Just Add Heat
If the cocktail just adds heat, it’s perfect for any drink that needs a slight bit of intrigue or interest added to it. My example of this is Scrappy’s Firewater (affiliate link). It adds that warmth you get after you take a bite of spicy food, but not much flavor. The product description says it adds floral and citrus notes, but it’s so strong that in the small quantities I use it, it’s barely perceptible.
Another great option is Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub. Both of these are strong so use them only in drops!
Bitters like Scrappy’s Firewater are great for drinks that use smoky elements but seem a bit flat. And all spicy bitters tend to work well with tequila, mezcal, and vodka. The herbaceous flavor and nose on tequila and mezcal often include peppercorn or pepper, so any hot bitters will match the flavor of the base spirit.
How to Use Hot Bitters in Cocktails
Bitters with just heat are delicious in Margaritas, Bloody Marys, Palomas, vegetable flavored cocktails, and some tropical drinks.
Sometimes just a drop or two can transform a complex cocktail with amaros and bitter elements like Chartreuse or Benedictine. I often experiment with them in cocktails as I would saline solution, just adding a drop or two to see how they affect balance and mouthfeel.
I’ve got a great recipe for a Tequila Sunrise that’s tweaked with a little hot bitters to add some spice to it.
About Bitters that Add Both Heat and Smoke
If the bitters add both heat and smoke flavors, you have a few more options for using it. That slight bit of smoke, like in Hella Cocktail Smoked Chili bitters (affiliate link), pairs well with both tequila and whisky cocktails.
Bourbons and ryes aren’t nearly as smoky as peated Scotch and whiskies, but the flavor of oak and char that sometimes comes through on the nose and palate pair well with bitters that add heat and smoke. Sometimes, instead of adding peated Scotch or mezcal to a cocktail, just a few dashes of a smoky, hot bitter will tie a drink together, making it more complex and well-rounded.
How to Use Spicy and Smoky Bitters in Cocktails
Hot, smoky bitters are delicious in Old Fashioneds, Margaritas (especially when made with mezcal), and tropical drinks that use pineapple or dark rums. They can be used in Whiskey Sours when flavors that pair well with grilling are added. Peach, pineapple, pears, and figs are excellent when grilled. Whiskey sours with syrups from those fruits are a delight with hot, smoky bitters.
In cold coffee cocktails, they add a bit of a puzzle to the drinker, that slight heat from the coffee flavor teases at the brain. It’s cold in the mouth, but that slight bit of heat remains after each sip. It’s a fun puzzle to set for your guests to ask them to identify it. Of course, these bitters work as delicious additions to Margaritas and Bloody Marys as well, and drinks with tequila, pisco, or caçhaca bases.
That Bold Old Fashioned above is my favorite use of the Hella Bitters Smoked Chili bitters.
Spicy Bitters with Pepper and/or Citrus Notes
Finally, we have those bitters that have both heat and chili pepper flavors in them, like King Floyd’s Green Chili Bitters or Strongfire Bonfire bitters (affiliate links). These bitters will have some of the taste of pepper in them, not just the heat, but the flavor of raw or cooked pepper. Oftentimes, the citrus flavor can be detected as well.
This kind of bitter might have the flavor of green chiles, jalapenos, habaneros, or just general flavors of peppers. Sometimes those flavors include charred or grilled peppers because of the way the peppers were prepared before being added to the bitters. These bitters are savory, vegetal and often include strong citrus notes like lime or lemon.
How to Use Hot Bitters with Pepper Flavors in Them
These types of bitters are delicious for savory cocktails like Bloody Marys, Dirty Martinis, Micheladas, some Pisco Sours, Mojitos, and Caipirinhas as well. Pairing these bitters with whiskey drinks is a bit more challenging, but can work with fruit sours that might be used to make salsa or in a highball with citrus seltzer.
Conclusion: Go Get Out Your Shaker and Mixing Glass and Experiment
Creating cocktails is all about experimentation and pairing flavors together in comforting and/or unexpected ways. Spicy bitters add another tool to your mixing toolbox, allowing you to play with the sensation of heat in combination with other flavors to make more complex and intriguing drinks.
And remember, test the hot bitters in water before adding them to drinks so you have a good idea of the intensity of the heat and flavors when diluted in a cocktail.
BONUS TIP: Adding a few drops of spicy bitters to a hot toddy can help clear your sinuses. Bitters started out as medicine after all.