What are Bitters and what are they used for?

What Exactly Are Bitters?

We get this question a lot. Most people have heard of bitters before, but they don’t really know what it is or how to use it. More often than not most people will recognize angostura bitters, even if they have never used it.

Our best short answer is: Bitters is nothing more than a liquid spice that is potently flavored and used to flavor mixed drinks and cocktails. Each drop brings a little bit of flavor and complexity to whatever you are adding it to. It can also be added to food.

The long answer is a bit more complicated…  

What Are Bitters Used For?

There are many different types of bitters and flavored extracts on the market. The way we look at it, you can place everything into two categories, the cocktail/cuisine category and the medicinal category. Let’s first look at the medicinal side of things.

Medicinal Bitters

Looking back into history, herbal bitters were originally considered to be natural medicine, as it was an extract concoction or elixir made from roots or herbs. The extraction was seen to capture the healing property of the plant and used as a cure for any ailment.  To truly understand the medical effects each herb extract might contain, your studies will take you deep into the world of plant science and botany.

For example, look no further than the health or medicine aisle of your favorite natural or organic grocery store, and you will find a plethora of single plant extracts and tinctures. When the extract is made with alcohol it is considered a tincture. Mountain Rose Herbs wrote a great article on tinctures, which you can read here. In the eyes of the FDA & government, these extracts are considered to be herbal supplements, because they are used for a specific medical reason. If you are looking for a true digestive bitter, technically you are looking for a herbal supplement. A lot of herbs and roots will help your digestion, but there are certain plants that will outperform the rest for this specific usage. Next time you are in your local natural grocery store, stop by the medicine section and take a peak at the selection. There are many herbal extracts and tinctures to choose from, so make sure you check the labels for usage suggestions. The healing properties of plants are actually quite amazing.

Cocktail & Cuisine Bitters

When looking at the cocktail & cuisine side of things, there are a variety of bitters brands to choose from. With all the unique flavors coming out each day, the lines between the two categories have also become blurred. Nothing is stopping you from making a cocktail bitter using healthy herbs, roots or plants. Many of the commercial brands actually do. On the highest level, a bitter is nothing more than an extract consisting of multiple fruits, vegetables, herbs or roots. What sets cocktail and cooking extracts apart from their medicinal counterparts, is how it’s used in a drink or dish. The flavor profile of each ingredient you add to your drink or dish, can alter the experience substantially. At the most basic level, a single plant tincture can be used in a cocktail if the mixologist only wants to add a very specific flavor profile to a drink. For example; the flavor profile you will get from orange bitters vs an orange tincture is significant. Orange or citrus bitters typically has numerous other flavor ingredients.  The orange tincture may only consist of orange peel.

To us, each flavor of bitters needs to have a purpose and help create a unique drinking or eating experience. Many of the classic cocktails we enjoy today will call for bitters in the recipe. Here are some of our recommended pairings: Floral bitters go great with gin cocktails, Chile bitters are great in Bloody Mary’s or bringing spice to bourbon cocktails, Lime and Grapefruit bitters go great with tequila, vodka and rum cocktails, Aromatic bitters go well with bourbon or whiskey cocktails and almost any cocktail depending on the flavor profile you're looking for.

Having said all that, when it comes to creating a cocktail experience, the drink should be well balanced. Just because it has bitters in it doesn’t mean that the cocktail should be bitter. We are busy experimenting with using bitters in food, so stay tuned for some great cocking bitters flavors and recipes.

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