Bartending Techniques

Why Bitters are Essential for Cocktails

Greg Horton, ReserveBar Spirits Contributor


There was a moment as a child when you smelled vanilla extract for the first time, likely when a parent or grandparent was making cookies. The volume of fragrance from such a tiny bottle is astounding, but you were probably more transfixed by how wonderfully redolent the warm, even comforting aroma was. The next step was the mistake, or in a larger sense, the lesson learned, because you probably tasted it – after all, who could resist tasting something that smelled like that! It was as if the essence of the cookie had been reduced to a quintessential aroma.

The realization that bitterness does not have an accompanying olfactory signal is jarring. By the time it’s on your tongue, it’s too late; you’re going along for the ride. Vanilla smells warm and sweet, much like cookies baking, but once it hits the tongue, warning signals are heading to the brain because bitter signals a problem. The bitter receptors are letting the brain know to slow down and assess what we’re tasting. Is something wrong? Is it edible?


Too much is made of the notion that bitter receptors developed in humans to warn us of poison; that’s only part of the story. Black coffee is bitter too, and it’s as comforting in its own way as vanilla and baking spices. Turnip greens, collard greens, cocoa, bitter orange, cruciferous vegetables, black tea – all bitter, and all enjoyed by people all over the world. Truthfully, we get better with bitter flavors as we get older; we do come to love them, and even think of them as comforting.

When we consider a cocktail as an effort in balancing flavor components – flavor being the sum of taste, smell, texture, and even mood – then bitter becomes a necessity. As a core function, bitterness counteracts sweetness, just as salty counteracts bitterness; these are chemical reactions, and everything added to a cocktail will create a different chemical reaction on the palate or in the olfactory receptors.

That’s just the simple function, though. A bittering agent can add depth and complexity to a cocktail. Thanks to the human tendency toward creativity and exploration to stave off boredom, they can also add pops of flavor and aroma. In what is probably the definitive book on the subject of bitters, “Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari,” Mark Bitterman notes:

“When our mouths taste bitterness, our brains immediately go into high alert. That is why putting bitters into a cocktail or food makes all the flavors pop. The presence of bitterness doesn’t increase the amount of flavor molecules in your mouth, but it sure makes us notice them more.”

Bitters then are a flavor intensifier, and not just for the bitters we use, but for all the other flavors in the cocktail. That’s why so many bartenders refer to bitters as the “salt and pepper” of the liquor cabinet. It’s oversimplified, but it’s not untrue.


As for what they are, cocktail bitters are like little bottles of concentrated alcohol, almost gin on steroids. Depending on the desired results, botanicals, spices, flowers, and leaves – think hibiscus, gentian, juniper, citrus peels – are macerated in ethanol (a simple alcohol) for two to three weeks. The solids are filtered out, and then the remaining liquid is proofed down, usually with distilled water, to around 45 percent alcohol by volume. The amount used in the cocktail prevents the bitterness from adding to the drink’s ABV.

Some bitters are household names, like Angostura and Peychaud’s, the former is traditional in an Old Fashioned, the latter is critical for a Sazerac. Angostura has been around the longest, and its well-protected formula is unknown to all but a few people. That it smells like prunes made from under-ripe plums does nothing to unlock the recipe. Peychaud’s is famously anise-forward, making its application much more limited than Angostura.

Standing in front of a shelf of bitters these days is like wandering into the French wine section of a retail liquor store or a beer-heavy liquor store in Portland. Choice paralysis and a lack of familiarity make the experience frustrating. To get started, though, some fundamental pairings will prepare you to venture into bitters made with dried chilis, cardamom, grapefruit, pine, and a whole host of other options as diverse as the imaginations that concocted the recipes.

A good basic bitters collection should start with Angostura, orange, lavender, citrus and chili. Hella has a great starter set with their own aromatic in place of Ango and ginger instead of lavender. Orange and smoked orange bitters are the most versatile; they work with the Big Five (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, whiskey). A couple of dashes in an Old Fashioned, when combined with an expressed orange peel, gives a lovely refreshing lift to the bourbon or rye. Lavender is great for gin drinks, especially martinis. Chili is for spice, so tequila or mezcal is the proper vehicle. As distinct from orange, citrus gives a zippy pop to vodka-based cocktails but provides a welcome respite from the smokiness of mezcal, too.


If an Irish whiskey says "Single Pot Still Whiskey" on the label, you can be certain that it's made to the highest standards of quality and craftsmanship. It also carries one extra special trait that makes it unique.

Not only is Single Pot Still Whiskey batch-distilled in classic copper pot stills, but it's also some of the only whiskey anywhere in the world that traditionally uses a blend of both malted barley (like scotch) and unmalted or "green" barley. This gives the spirit a uniquely dry, spicy, velvety character found only in Ireland.

Redbreast Irish Whiskey is the torchbearer of the Single Pot Still style, and one sip of their acclaimed 12 Year Old will show you why.


Beyond the basics, it’s trusting your experience of flavor combinations. Tobacco bitters or chocolate bitters with whiskey? Absolutely. With vodka? Eh, probably not. Cardamom with dark rum? Bring it. With gin? A little over the top, but maybe. Have fun. Good bar supply shops will have open bottles for you to taste. A drop on the back of your thumb is sufficient. If it tastes like you’d enjoy it with your preferred cocktail, give it a try. The beauty is in their ability to create multiple versions of the same cocktail with just 2-3 dashes.

Start Mixing with These Bitters