We’re often asked, “What are bitters?” Many questions arise about ingredient content, amount of alcohol, and how they’re produced. We’ll break down what bitters are and how they're used.
What are bitters?
Inside that bottle of bitters bottle on your home bar, there is a liquor that’s highly concentrated with herbs and other plant elements but it’s not a liquor for consuming outright. Bartenders often refer to bitters as the salt and pepper of a cocktail because bitters act as an enhancement rather than the backbone of a cocktail as true liquor does. The bitters we make at The Bitter Housewife and those bitters that are used in this way are referred to as cocktail, or tincture bitters, and are typically used in small doses: a few drops or dashes per drink. Less than a teaspoon. If in the back of your mind you're thinking about other bitter liquors like Fernet Branca or Campari, you’re not off in your thinking. These products are referred to as “digestive bitters” and are traditionally served at the end of a meal, consumed neat, over ice, or mixed in a cocktail like a Negroni, but in all of these instances, you would use an ounce or more.
In addition to The Bitter Housewife, popular brands of cocktail bitters include Angostura, Bittermens, and Peychaud’s.
Origin of Bitters
We here at The Bitter Housewife obviously were not the first to create bitters nor was Angostura. Where did bitters originate then? Way before our time.
Since cocktail bitters gain popularity from cocktails, it’s important to note when bitters were first used in cocktails. According to Smithsonian magazine, Farmer’s Cabinet, an agriculture periodical published in Philadelphia made an early description of what we know to be a cocktail in 1806 that called for four ingredients: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
If bitters were mainstream by 1806, when did they really come around? Many, if not, all sources point all the way back to ancient Egyptian times where wine was infused with herbs. Fast forward to the middle ages where bitters, along with distilled alcohol became staples in pharmacology and medicine.
Alcohol Content of Bitters
A bottle of cocktail bitters is generally 35–45% alcohol. Since most bitters are used by dashes or in drops, the amount of alcohol is minuscular, making the ABV difficult to trace. That’s why they’re often marketed as non-alcoholic, although they are made from alcohol.
We always say that bitters and soda are what to drink when you’re not drinking. Don’t bitters have alcohol though? It’s a common question, especially as we see people looking for low ABV and zero proof drinking options. If you check out our ingredients on the back of the label you’ll see ‘alcohol’ as the first ingredient. What are bitters? What is the alcoholic content of bitters?
We’ll answer this fairly common question for you, “What are bitters?” along with a few common questions about bitters.
How Bitters are Made
To make bitters, you have to start with a bitter agent. A bittering agent is anything from edible flowers and leaves to roots and barks that provide a strong bitter base. We generally use gentian root, quassia bark, and wild cherry bark, but you’ll also burdock root, wormwood, and angelica root among many others. The bitter base flavor is then layered with other botanicals such as dried fruits, toasted nuts, citrus peel, herbs like rosemary, sage, or mint, and spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and allspice.
Bitters are made by infusing and blending all of the botanical ingredients in high proof alcohol. This extracts a deep concentrated flavor and acts as a preservative. It may sound easy, but the challenge lies in balancing all those flavors so the end result isn’t too bitter or overly botanical. We want our bitters to blend seamlessly into your cocktails.
The bitters you may be most familiar with are Angostura or Peychaud’s. These are considered aromatic bitters and pair best with darker spirits like whiskey. The Bitter Housewife Aromatic Bitters fit into this category as well and was made specifically to go in an Old Fashioned, although it can be used in many other cocktails. Because bitters can be made up of any botanical combination, there are many options available that differ significantly in flavor than aromatic bitters and can be used with all different spirits. As you explore the world of bitters, look for other options like orange bitters, or grapefruit bitters. Keep exploring and you may find black walnut, chocolate, spiced cherry, lemon, peach, and more. The flavor you choose depends on what you plan to mix it with. At The Bitter Housewife, we combine botanicals and bitter ingredients to create flavor profiles such as Lime Coriander, Cardamom, Orange, Barrel Aged Bitters, Grapefruit, and of course, our signature Aromatic Bitters.
How to Use Bitters
Bitters don’t need to be mixed in a complicated cocktail. Something as simple as a gin and tonic will benefit from a few dashes of orange bitters or grapefruit bitters. Many people even mix aromatic bitters and soda as a refreshing low ABV beverage. We think this combo is so awesome we put Bitters & Soda in a can for you so you can just crack the can and drink.
How else can you use bitters? You can cook with bitters. Cocktail bitters can be added to squash soup, chocolate chip cookies, ham glaze, pesto, onion dip, meatballs, and so much more.
The best bitters for old fashioned cocktails will be aromatic, but orange bitters also work well and add a bit of bright flavor to a rich bourbon. You can use orange bitters in a martini, manhattan, margarita, daiquiri, and so many more. For more recipes on how to use bitters, check out the recipes section on our website.
Here are a few recipes for using bitters:
Old Fashioned Bitter Housewife
- 1.5 oz bourbon
- 4-6 dashes The Bitter Housewife Aromatic Bitters
- 1 tsp 2:1 simple syrup
- orange wedge
- brandied cherry
- a generous splash of soda water
Muddle the orange, cherry, bitters, and syrup in an old-fashioned glass. Pour in bourbon, add ice, stir to chill and top with soda.
Lime Coriander Margarita
- 1.5 oz tequila
- 0.5 oz Triple Sec
- 0.5 Freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 spoon agave syrup
- 1/2 pinch salt
- 4-5 dashes The Bitter Housewife Lime Coriander Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into ice-filled old-fashioned glass. Garnish with salt rim (optional) & lime wedge.
The Classic Champagne Cocktail
- sugar cube
3-4 dashes The Bitter Housewife Aromatic Bitters
- 4 oz Champagne
Place a sugar cube into a champagne flute, soak with bitters, fill the glass with Champagne.
Use any flavor of bitters in place of Aromatic. Orange and Cardamom are particularly tasty.
In most states across the country, bitters can be purchased at the grocery store and at liquor stores. Specialty shops like The Meadow in Portland sell bitters along with other items like chocolate, and salt. Bitters can also be purchased online because they are considered an ingredient, not a stand-alone drink Where in a lot of states in the U.S. alcohol cannot be shipped to your door, bitters can be. Check out our online store to place an order today.