Bitters are a secret ingredient used by bartenders to add flavour to cocktails. They are spirits infused with botanicals (herbs and spices) that come in small bottles. Modern mixology is heavily dependent on the use of bitters, which result in complex, signature flavours. Bitters are made of many different ingredients and so their flavours are not easily recognisable. Angostura bitters were the first bitters to be mass produced and marketed as a medicinal tonic in the mid-1800s. Today, they find use in cocktails.

Often infused with herbs, spices, fruits, roots, tree bark and other botanicals, bitters use ingredients like orange peel, gentian root, cassia bark, cascarilla and cinchona bark. The most popular type of cocktail bitters, Angostura bitters are produced by the House of Angostura in Trinidad and Tobago. It is packaged in small bottles that have white labels. Angostura bitters taste bitter and spicy, with hints of cinnamon and clove. They were first introduced as a medicinal tonic by a surgeon in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in 1824. 

Peychaud’s bitters

Commonly used in cocktails like the Sazerac, which is the official drink of New Orleans, Peychaud’s bitters were created by an apothecary named Antoine Peychaud in New Orleans in the 1830s. They are slightly sweeter than Angostura bitters and have hints of anise and mint. 

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Orange bitters

Made using orange peel, orange bitters were first introduced in the 1860s and 1870s. They began to be included in cocktails like the dry martini starting in the 1880s. They later became hard to find for many years but have become available again. The House of Angostura introduced an orange bitter called Angostura Orange in 2007. Orange bitters have a characteristic citrusy taste and hints of coriander, cinnamon, anise and cardamom. 

Using bitters 

In ancient times and up till the 18th century, bitters were used like natural herbs to cure sicknesses. Today, they are used mainly in cocktails to give them a different flavour. The key to using bitters is to start with a small amount. Only one or two drops are needed in a cocktail glass. A dropper must be used to add bitters to your drinks or too much can go in. 

Cocktails like the martini, Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac and Negroni all use bitters. Bitters balance out overwhelming flavours. Angostura bitters are used in Old Fashioned, and Peychaud’s bitters are used in the Sazerac. 

While they’re still not too common, expert mixologists and high-end bars tend to have bitters as part of their stock. Today, bitters have gone beyond Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange, and include every variety from chocolate to habanero.