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“What are cocktail bitters?” is a question I, too, asked myself while reading the ingredients for a unique cocktail recipe. I mean, why would anyone want to make their drink bitter? It turns out, though, that cocktail bitters are something you definitely should be stocking in your home bar if you’re any kind of mixologist. Even the amateur kind. Featured beautifully in unforgettable cocktails like the Old Fashioned, bitters are a mixology sensation!

What are cocktail bitters?

Cocktail bitters are infused with different natural flavourings that affect the taste, and smell, of mixed drinks. There really isn’t a limit to what they can be infused with; some include fruit, botanicals, spices, roots, seeds, and even bark! The end flavour is bitter, bittersweet, or sour – but don’t worry, you’re not drinking it on its own.

In fact, cocktail bitters are classified as non-beverages. That means they’re not meant to be consumed on their own. They are, however, alcoholic. It’s the alcohol that works as a solvent for whatever flavour is being infused in the cocktail bitter.

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How long have cocktail bitters been around?

Angostura bitters have been around since at least 1830. Originally from Venezuela, it started off as a remedy for upset stomachs that soon turned into a cocktail featuring soda water and gin. 

But bitters being used in mixed drinks didn’t start then. In fact, the term cocktail actually dates as far back as 1806. It was described as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” 

Much like the Angostura bitters, though, cocktail bitters started off as medicinal bitters. Today, especially in Europe and South America, they’re still consumed as a digestive aid after meals. 

Blame hipsters, trendy mixologists, or millennials… Regardless of the reason, cocktail bitters have suddenly become popular again in recent years. Now you can find plenty of cocktail bitter options to add to your drinks. 

It’s also becoming a trend for people to make their own cocktail bitters. It’s supposed to be pretty simple and can be done in a mason jar without any special equipment.

What do cocktail bitters taste like?

OK, we’ve established that they’re probably bitter. But what do cocktail bitters really taste like? Saying ‘anything’ probably isn’t very helpful, is it. It’s true! Flavours range from spicy bitters that can be used as a substitute for hot sauce in recipes to sweet molasses blends that will mix perfectly with brown liquor. 

There’s spicy, savory, fruity, sweet, floral, nutty, and so many other flavour profiles out there just waiting for you to sample. 

How much alcohol is in bitters?

Bitters are about 44% alcohol, which means they’re pretty alcoholic… Except most recipes call for just a dash. You’d have to drink a lot to feel a buzz, and you’d most likely feel sick before you ended up drunk. That’s good news if you’re hoping to make some low-alcohol cocktails, or even mocktails. 

What do you do with cocktail bitters?

Cocktail bitters are used to add flavouring to mixed drinks. You can mix them with virtually any alcohol like vodka, gin, rum, whisky, and so on. They lend very well to classic drinks like gin cocktails or dark rum drinks, but also used to make some unique combinations.

Popular drinks that require cocktail bitters to create their unique flavour combination are the old-fashioned and the Manhattan. Martinis are also great when made with bitters!

Can you substitute bitters for other ingredients?

Yes and no. Bitters get their distinct flavour as the ingredients steep with the alcohol. That means you pretty much can’t imitate the complexity of a bitter’s flavour profile with ingredients found in your kitchen.

That being said, in a pinch you can substitute certain bitters with other ingredients. Look at the flavours your recipe calls for and try and add those spices and flavours in. For example, something that calls for a citrus flavoured cocktail bitter might work with citrus juice instead. 

Where to buy cocktail bitters

Cocktail bitters are sold in small bottles, since they’re only meant to be flavouring. You’d typically use a very small amount when mixing each cocktail. Most people want a variety of bitters in their bar (or home bar), so it’s better to keep the portions small.

Since they’re alcoholic, your best bet in finding bitters for sale is to look at your local liquor stores. Especially if you have some that offer higher end selections.

Depending on where you live they might also be sold in the grocery store. Check the aisle with the other cocktail mixes like soda water, grenadine, etc. 

Buy cocktail bitters online

Thankfully, you can also buy cocktail bitters online! Here’s some of my favourite options to get  you started. You probably should pick them all up (and sample them in some cocktails) just to be safe. 

Bitters “Triple Play” Variety 3-Pack: Angostura, Peychauds and Regans

3 bottles of cocktail bitters featuring regans orange bitters and angostura

I just have to start with the classics! There are some of the most popular cocktail bitters out there. Can you even call yourself a cocktail fan if you don’t have these in your home bar? 

Strongwater Bitters Collection Gift Set

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This gift set has everything you need to become a cocktail master. With 5 basic bitters, you’ll be able to mix all kinds of unique drinks right away. 

Scrappy’s Bitters – Chocolate

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Every bar needs a chocolate flavoured bitter in it. Especially for making winter holiday drinks! This company also offers a set of 12 popular flavours, which is a great deal if you want to have a variety of drink infusion options.

FEE BROTHERS Old Fashion Bitters

OK I’m going to confess a slight bias here when I say that old fashioned drinks are still the best cocktail around. You just can’t make them properly without old fashion bitters, though. Seriously, this cocktail bitter will change your life! You’ll never drink bourbon any other way

Now that you’re clear on what cocktail bitters are it’s time to get practicing your drink mixing! I’ll leave you with a simple version of the classic old fashioned cocktail recipe: 1 sugar cube, 2 to 3 dashes of Angostura bitters, ice, and 2 ounces of bourbon or rye.

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