Cocktail Bitters: A Guide To Knowing And Using The Flavourings
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Whether you enjoy an occasional night cap in the comfort of your space or find your spirits lifted by a well-made artisanal cocktail, bitters are a largely under-utilised and highly overlooked aspect of mixology. While ordering a drink off of a menu, we’ve often spotted the word placed next to an Angostura or Japanese bitters without pondering too much over how a few drops of something can elevate an alcoholic beverage.

To illustrate this better, bitters enhance the taste of a cocktail in a way adding a teaspoon of vanilla does to cakes or cookies, or using whole spices in a sauce does for savoury dishes. A few drops of bitters highlight the complexity and potency of a drink in a way that it balances as well as adds depth of flavour. Cocktail bitters not only serve their purpose in contributing to a spirited beverage, but also lend themselves well to non-alcoholic drinks.

At its core, bitters are made by infusing herbs, spices, or botanicals into potent alcoholic mediums or glycerine – for a non-alcoholic final product. What makes bitters different from tinctures is that while the former has an underlying note of bitter flavour to it and can be made with a combination of ingredients, tinctures are single-ingredient infusions which may or may not have a flavouring agent that contributes bitter flavour. Despite having a similar process of production, tinctures are fairly significant in their botanical flavours, unlike bitters which have more of a concentrated and intense flavour.

Adding a few drops of bitters to an Old-Fashioned cocktail or a Cherry Sour really make up for the lack of having all ingredients handy in more ways than one. Contrary to the perception of what bitters really are, they do not always add a bitter flavour to cocktails. For example, using grapefruit or orange bitters in a Margarita cocktail can highlight the citrus notes of your drink and balance the acidity, in order to make it taste more tropical and fruitier versus just mouth-puckeringly sour.

While the widely used Angostura bitters originate from Trinidad and Tobago have a woodsy flavour and warmth due to the spices used in it, they work very well to elevate drinks like the Manhattan and whiskey cocktails at large. Another form of bitters derived from infusing orange peels, cardamom and burnt sugar in an alcohol base are perfect for shaking up vodka or gin-based drinks. As surprising as it might be to learn, the German digestive known as Jägermeister is also classified to be a top-notch bitter made with 56 herbs and spices; pairing excellently with coffee liqueurs, fruit juices and even energy drinks.