Essential Bitters

Creole bitters, burdock bitters, five-spice bitters—if you can think of a flavor, it probably exists in bitters form. But how many of them deserve a spot behind the bar?
photo: Lizzie Munro

Over the past decade we’ve been witness to a bitters boom, with aromatic bitters going from the cocktail world’s endangered species list to a category in need of a serious culling.

Back in 1999, when Ryan Maybee, owner of the Kansas City bars The Rieger and Manifesto, first started tending bar there were only two brands in the market: Angostura and Peychaud’s. “It was nearly impossible to find any orange bitters on the market,” says Maybee. Now, he acknowledges, there are so many brands available that “the window is closing for any new brands or flavors to really have an impact and become a staple behind the bar.”

The consequences of this bitters boom were already on the horizon six years ago as I was writing Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, my book on the subject. In fact, I often think back to a conversation I had with Jim Meehan in 2010 one evening at PDT whenhe gestured to the dozen-plus bottles of bitters lined up on the bar, and expressed concern about what was to come on the bitters front.

Today, a dozen seems quaint. There are easily over 50 different brands producing hundreds of flavors of bitters, with more brands coming to market every year. Variations on the more common aromatic and orange varieties have spawned a spectrum of flavors covering every riff on citrus, spice and vegetal imaginable. “If you can think of a flavor that you’d like in a bitters, it probably exists,” says Sother Teague, the beverage director of New York’s bitters-focused Amor y Amargo.

In turn, what has been described as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world has transformed into an entire spice rack. This boom has created a conundrum for home bartenders: How do you know which bitters are worth buying and which you might want to skip? And which bitters have joined the canon of classics and which will barely be remembered?

To answer the question, I surveyed a murder’s row of top bartenders across the country with that very query, and after sorting through their favorites, present a ranked lineup of essential bitters. Ultimately, though, it’s about what you like to drink at home and experimenting with the particular bitters that may enhance or elevate that experience. On my bar cart, you’ll find Angostura, Peychaud’s, Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 and Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters. But that doesn’t mean I won’t open my kitchen closet filled with every bitters under the sun from time to time to pull out something a bit more esoteric.

Top Ten Essential Bitters

Angostura Aromatic Bitters

Angostura was created by German doctor Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in 1824 in Venezuela, when he was serving as Surgeon General for Simon Bolivar. Siegert’s sons later moved the company to Trinidad in the 1870s where the House of Angostura still resides, producing the distinctive yellow-capped bottle with the oversized label seen in bars and homes around the world. Maybee says there are “too many classics to list that call for it,” but among those are the Old-FashionedManhattan and Champagne CocktailAbe Fisher‘s Brian Kane offers, “Ango is always used to add standalone depth of spice and finish to almost anything it meets.” While Julia Momose of Oriole adds, “Most modern aromatic bitters are modeled after Angostura Bitters. Why deviate from the tried and true?”

Peychaud’s Aromatic Cocktail Bitters

“Don’t even think of making a Sazerac with any thing else,” warns Maybee. The distinctive cherry-red colored bitters most associated with New Orleans and its famous hometown cocktails, like the Sazerac and the Vieux Carré, was created in 1838 by Antoine Amédée Peychaud. A bit sweeter than Angostura with distinctive notes of anise, it can also be put to use in the Seelbach and Sawyer cocktails.

Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6

We’ve gone from a landscape of trying to track down orange bitters to now having to contend with which orange bitters to buy. While Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6—which was created by bon vivant barman Gaz Regan and released in 2005—is modern, it has quickly become the benchmark. Not to mention the fact that, the brand, which is known for a distinctive spicy profile that leans on notes of cardamom and coriander, helped ignite the current bitters boom. Two other popular orange bitters options come from Angostura and Fee Brothers: Angostura Orange Bitters, introduced in 2007, hits you with bright floral notes and fresh orange peel, while Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters possesses a candy-like sweetness; for a time it was popular with bartenders to make a custom 50/50 orange bitters by combing equal parts Regans’ and Fee Brothers.

Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters

The portfolio of bitters from Avery and Janet Glasser’s Bittermens are among the most respected in the bartending community. The first of their two original bitters, created in 2007, combines cacao and cinnamon among other spices and is at home among dark spirits, rum and tequila. “It really stands up to drinks and adds flavor with a touch of bitterness,” says Meaghan Dorman of Raines Law Room and Dear Irving, among others. It’s become a secret weapon for bartenders who turn to it for an added, aromatic accent to all varieties of shaken and stirred cocktails.

Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters

The Pacific Northwest hops used in Bittermens’ other 2007 release “are floral but also bitter,” according to Teague. “Combined with the citrus, these are an easy step past orange bitters.” He likes using them in MartinisGin and Tonics and White Negronis, while Momose says they’re “amazing in bright, citrus cocktails such as the Hemingway DaiquiriPaloma or a Corpse Reviver.” This is the one I recommend the most to have on hand after Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters. I add a couple drops in my Gin and Tonics, but also use them along with a dash of Angostura for color to soak a sugar cube in a Champagne Cocktail.

Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters

Featuring cinnamon, allspice, ginger and cardamom, Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters started out as a custom blend from the Glassers for a bartender friend opening a restaurant with a serious tiki pedigree. After loads of positive feedback, the formula went into commercial rotation in 2008. As the name implies, they play well in tiki and tropical drinks like John deBary’s blue-hued Shark cocktail. Chris Elford, owner of Seattle bars No Anchor and Navy Strength, is also a fan. “The cola, leather and island spice make this a classic for me,” he says.

Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters

Founded by bartenders Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2009, Bittercube uses all naturally sourced, raw ingredients in their blends. Their Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters, which uses an aged-whiskey base, is a favorite of Aaron Polsky, the Bar Manager of Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles. “The medium- and high-toned spice is almost tonka [bean]-like, and adds magical top-notes to rum,” he says. With a profile of dried fruit and floral aromatics, they’re also great in Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours.

Scrappy’s Celery Bitters

Founded by Seattle bartender Miles Thomas and launched in 2008, the lineup of Scrappy’s Bitters is another bartender favorite. Momose especially admires their take on celery bitters for its “gorgeous balance of celery leaves, celery seed and perceived hints of dill and fennel pollen,” adding that it’s “delicious in savory cocktails such as Martinis or Bloody Marys.”

The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters

The Bitter Truth, which was launched in 2006 by Munich bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck, was one of the first modern bitters makers to break out onto the global scene. Released in 2008, their Jerry Thomas Bitters is an homage to the 19th-century bitters recipe from the legendary bartender, and uses a demerara rum as its base, which is then flavored with cloves, dried fruit, citrus and Angostura bark. As for the double branding, Bitter Truth bitters are classified as a spirit instead of a food product and in many states can only be sold in liquor stores.

Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters

Created in 2012 by bartender Dale DeGroff in collaboration with the French distiller T.A. Breaux, DeGroff’s namesake bitters spotlight the pimento allspice berry as the star ingredient. “Its pretty singular note of allspice blends pretty seamlessly with lots of flavors,” says Teague. “Substitute [it] for Ango in classics, but [it’s] also great with citrus in modern drinks as well as tiki drinks.”

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