Growing up, if our parents had bitters at all, it was likely a dusty bottle of aromatic bitters way back in cupboard. There wasn't a big choice in brands or flavors. Craft cocktails wasn't a thing. Lucky for us, things have changed. Today cocktail bitters are hot, and they come in gorgeously packaged bottles and lots of flavors. Fruit bitters concocted from orange or grapefruit peel can add an acidic complexity to a mixed drink like a Margarita. Aromatic bitters, infused with spices like cardamom or cloves, lend spicy notes that can warm up a Tiki cocktail in unexpected ways.
What are bitters, exactly?
Bitters are the end result of a months-long process of macerating, distilling, and filtering neutral grain alcohol with botanicals such as seeds, herbs, roots, barks, leaves, flowers, fruits, or vegetables. The resulting extract is highly aromatic and potent which is why you only need a dash--or drop--or two at a time. Fruit bitters, especially, have gained great traction recently among forward-thinking bartenders.
What do Bitters add to a cocktail?
Bitters add flavor, complexity, and balance to a mixed drink. They temper the harshness of the alcohol and even out the sweetness of, say, a simple syrup or sweet vermouth. There is alcohol in bitters, but a very small amount in the few drops called for in most drink recipes, so they don't make drinks more potent.
Are bitters good for anything besides mixed drinks?
Yes! Swap out a flavored bitters for vanilla in baked goods or whipped cream--a cinnamon, clove, or cherry flavor could be divine. Use a few dashes of a celery or orange bitters in a salad dressing for extra zing. And definitely use them in non-alcoholic beverages: mix with club soda and a sweet syrup, or even into a juice drink, to mix things up.
A little bottle of bitters goes a long way and makes a nice gift - to yourself or a lucky friend.