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Craft cocktail bitters: What are they?

Celery bitters Celery bitters can be added to Hendricks gin and lemon juice to create a celery sour

Craft cocktail bitters have come to the fore in bars of distinction. But what do they actually do?

"People are appreciating now that bitters are important to a great cocktail. It makes it complex and sophisticated," says mixologist and owner of Papaji's bar in Bristol, Andy Dodd.

So what are they? Alcoholic flavourings, essentially. Botanical flavours are created by infusing or distilling herbs, barks, spices, and roots in alcohol, and then bottling the tonic.

"Non-potable" bitters are not drinkable on their own, but are added to drinks as a flavouring in dashes - usually one or two but depending on the recipe - up to five in some case - the most commonly known is Angostura.

Bartenders tend to think of them as "binding agents", says World Duty Free Mixologist Charlie McCarthy, bringing balance to the drink and the best flavour out of other ingredients in the mixed drink.

They are now often paired with spirits like whisky, gin and vodka which have their own botanical elements.

Bitters are an elemental ingredient in cocktails and cocktail history.

Add a dash:

Whisky sour

Shake up a whisky sour

Sip brandy and bitters

Mix into a champagne cocktail

They were first developed as a patent medicine or kind of "snake oil", a high-alcohol base with a proprietary blend of barks, roots, seeds, plants, and botanicals, explains Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All.

"While bittering agents can indeed help with digestive distress, many bitters were advertised as an all-purpose cure-all for whatever ailed you," says Brad Thomas Parsons.

"The popularity of using bitters for prescriptive matters brought about many knock-off brands with dubious, inferior ingredients that were merely cashing in on the trend but without any concern for medicinal properties

Bob's bitters Bob's Bitters are developed from a culinary point of view so are "single flavours"

Up until 2009, Angostura was really the only bitters on the market, "people could get Peychaud's from New Orleans, but it was really a rarity", explains Charlie McCarthy.

A supply shortage led to independent producers making their own with "any aromatic ingredient that you can think of", he says.

So how are bitters made?

Citrus, aromatic and floral flavours are brought out of ingredients and transferred into the base alcoholic spirit over time. They can even be made at home, but getting a specific recipe just right is a fine art.

Based in Aberdeen, Adam Elmegirab was a bartender originally. In 2008 he set out to recreate all the drinks in the 1862 book How To Mix Drinks or A Bon Vivant's Companion, by Jerry Thomas.

He found that many of the recipes called for Boker's bitters, which were founded by John G. Boker in 1828 but were no longer produced after the US law of prohibition, also known as The Volstead Act, shut them down. So he set about replicating them himself.

Add a dash to a drink:

Cocktail and martini and gin

Why do some people prefer bitter drinks?

Is gin the tonic for a shrinking drinks market?

"I... managed to collect some old Boker's bitters bottles, with remnants, and mimicked a formula, used a base spirit, found out where it came from, got in touch with the descendants of the original family that produced it and tried to create it as close to the original as possible.

"By recreating Boker's bitters we found we could reproduce more drinks in the old style, such as Martini and Manhattan which used to be a lot heavier in spirits."

He made a first batch of five bottles, posted a picture on his blog and word spread.

"Within a week I had 1,000 emails from bartenders around the world and the business has just grown and grown."

Now he produces about 3,000-5,000 bottles of five different regular flavours, and one seasonal flavour a month, and stocks nearly 30 countries.

He also produces one exclusive bottle of Orinoco bitters for The Dead Rabbit, a New York bar which has just won awards for the world's best bar, cocktail, and barman.

Bitters Non-potable bitters were originally called "snake oil" as they were drunk with water to cure any kind of ailment

Bob Petrie came up with Bob's Bitters - a range of single flavours, when the Dorchester hotel in London wanted to develop a range.

"The idea was to create 'The Gin Experience' serving gin with a selection of bespoke bitters. I took the idea further, making single flavoured bitters with the botanicals used in the flavour profile of gin, e.g. cardamom, ginger, liquorice," he says.

"I enjoy a cocktail, but am not really a drinker, so I see it more as a culinary point of view," he says.

"Palates are changing - mine aren't as bitter as others in the market, as they are single flavours, so people like the idea of adding and mixing those with control," he says.

An original bitters was Abbotts - a tonic to aid digestion. It was later used as an ingredient in the original Manhattan. Bob Petrie has recreated the flavour as part of his range.

"Having been developed over the past five years, this is the first reformulated Abbotts Bitters that has been commercially available since the 1950s.

"Abbotts was aged for six months in a medium charred oak barrel. This process produced a more rounded, mellow flavour with many layers of complexity," he explains.

"We believe we have brought Abbotts Bitters into the 21st Century and, with the help of the modern barman, it can be used in many cocktails, like the Manhattan, Martini, El Presidente," he says.

His sales have increased tenfold.

"Bitters just happens to be one of those areas where aficionados can really geek out - from sampling dozens of bitters to determine which one is just perfect in your Old Fashioned to experimenting with making your own bitter, " says Brad Thomas Parsons.

"Bottles of bitters may be taking up more prime real estate than they used to behind the bar but this is a good thing. I find it often sparks a conversation behind the bartender and his guest which can open the door to trying new flavours in your cocktail."

And in the meantime, "bartenders are very much looking forward to the next flavour and where it comes from," says Adam Elmegirab.

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