The History Of Cocktail Bitters And How To Use Them

When you find a drink at a bar that you fall head over heels for and then just can’t seem to replicate at home, one of the underlying reasons is usually cocktail bitters. Bitters are one of the most powerful tools in a mixologist’s arsenal and can be used in a multitude of ways to make unique and delicious cocktails. But they’re hardly a new invention. They date back hundreds of years.

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The History Of Cocktail Bitters

The earliest bitters were crafted in ancient Egypt by infusing herbs and other botanicals in wine, forming a part of traditional medicinal practices. This approach was later adopted by various European nations, using white wine or clear spirits to uphold and intensify the essence of gathered botanicals. The resulting simple concoction was enjoyed during festivities or alongside meals. Moving into the 18th century, some doctors (whether actual physicians or quacks on a joyride remains undetermined), developed proprietary blends of cocktail bitters, marketing them as remedies for blood or stomach ailments. The process mirrored today's methods, involving the amalgamation of herbs and spices preserved in alcohol.

The big issue with bitters was…they were bitter. And as humans want to do, they looked for ways to make these supposed cures go down easier. Enter alcohol. People found that mixing their medicine in with some spirits was much more palatable, pleasant even, and it soon became a regular habit. Notably, the term "bitters" is integral to the initial recorded usage of the word "cocktail." At that time, a cocktail was defined as any drink comprising spirits, water, sugar, and bitters.

In 1824, Dr. Johann Siegert, a physician in Venezuela, initiated the production of Angostura as a stimulant for the troops, aiding them in combating malaria and maintaining their vitality. Transitioning into the late 1800s, commonly referred to as the golden age of the cocktail, bitters became inseparably linked with cocktails, prevailing as a ubiquitous ingredient in bars across the board.

In England, bitters found their way into a beverage known as Canary wine. Medicinal herb-infused dashes and drops were incorporated into these drinks. However, the popularity of bitters truly surged during American Colonial times, persisting quietly through the Prohibition era but fell by the wayside for the better part of the 20th century. 

The revival of bitters commenced in 2005, spearheaded by the seasoned bartender and author Gary Regan. He rekindled interest with the introduction of Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6, resurrecting a once-forgotten style of cocktail bitters. Today, bitters can be found at almost every bar in the world and have become an integral part of many cocktail recipes.

How To Use Bitters

Adding a few drops of bitters to classics like an Old-Fashioned or a Cherry Sour can adeptly make up for missing ingredients in multiple ways. Despite the prevalent belief that bitters introduce a bitter flavour to cocktails, this is not always the case. Take, for instance, the inclusion of grapefruit or orange bitters in a Margarita; it elevates the citrus tones, harmonising acidity and bestowing a tropical and fruity essence, steering clear of an excessively sour profile.

Types Of Bitters To Explore

Herbal Bitters

A medley of herbs and botanicals, these bitters can lend deep earthy and aromatic notes to your at-home cocktails. Common ingredients include thyme, rosemary, or chamomile which can create a more complex and herbaceous taste.

Citrus Bitters

With a fresh zesty and refreshing twist they can liven up even the most basic drinks, typically infused with the peels of citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, or grapefruits. They add a bright and lively flavour profile to cocktails.

Spice Bitters

Spices often feature in more innovative cocktails and spice-infused bitters are a shortcut to amping up the dimensions of flavour. Spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and allspice are commonly used in darker, spirit-forward drinks for more complexity.

Gentian Bitters

Derived from the gentian root a type of flowering plant, these are known for their bittering properties. They contribute a slightly bitter note to contrast with sweeter flavours without overpowering the overall profile, making them a staple in classic cocktail recipes.

Aromatic Bitters

For a bitter that does it all these well-balanced blends of various herbs, spices, and botanicals are versatile and widely used, adding a subtle complexity to a range of cocktails.

So now you know what they are and how to use them, go forth and take on a new realm of mixology, fuelled by the power of bitters!