What Are Bitters?
What are Bitters and what are they used for?
We get this question a lot. Most people have heard of bitters, but they don’t really know what it is or how to use it. Our best short answer is: Bitters is nothing more than a liquid spice for drinks. Each drop brings a little bit of flavor and complexity to whatever you are drinking. It can also be added to food.
The long answer is a bit more complicated…
The way we look at it, bitters can be placed into two categories, the cocktail/cuisine category and the medicinal category. Let’s start with the medicinal side of things.
Looking back into history, bitters was considered to be natural medicine, as it was nothing more than an elixir or extract made from roots and available 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 a bitter 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 to 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. The healing properties of plants are actually quite amazing.
When looking at the cocktail & cuisine side of things, the lines have blurred in the recent years. Nothing is stopping you from making a bitter using healthy herbs, roots or plants, many of the commercial bitters 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 bitters apart is how it’s used in a drink or dish. The flavor profile of the bitter can alter the drinking or eating 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. Such as using an orange peel tincture or blueberry tincture. The person enjoying the drink will be able to identify those flavors more easily. The more ingredients that are used to create a specific bitter, the more complex the flavor that it imparts in the drink. To us, each flavor of bitters needs to have a purpose and help create a unique drinking or eating experience. Here are some of our recommended bitter pairings: Floral bitters go great with gin cocktails, Chile bitters are great in Bloody Mary’s or bringing spice to bourbon cocktails, Lime bitters 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.
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.