What Exactly Are Bitters?

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Your bartender may add a few drops of bitters to your cocktail. What exactly is this flavor-enhancing ingredient?

Even if you don’t drink whiskey, you know classic cocktails like the Manhattan and old-fashioned use an ingredient called “bitters” to enhance their flavor. In fact, bitters are one of the secret ingredients bartenders swear by to craft the perfect cocktail. You can even use 2-3 dashes of bitters mixed with a splash of soda water for a terrific nonalcoholic drink.

Here’s your guide to this exotic elixir!

What Are Bitters Made From?

Bitters are made from aromatic herbs, spices, roots, bark and fruits chosen for their flavor and medicinal properties. Traditionally, a high-proof, neutral-flavored alcohol is used to make bitters, such as vodka.

Bitters are generally sold in a small bottle, and a little bit will go a long way. The classic brand is Angostura, which has been made since the early 1800s. One of our favorite modern brands is Bittercube, which is available in a variety of delicious flavors, like Cherry Bark Vanilla.

What Are Bitters Used For?

Bitters add a pleasant bite to drinks. They bring complexity and dimension to drinks without drowning out the main flavors. Think of them as “oomph.”

It is believed that people have been adding bitters to alcoholic beverages since ancient Egypt. The modern recipe for bitters was reportedly concocted in the early 1800s as medicine for relieving stomach pain.

How Do I Make My Own Bitters at Home?

It may take some time, but making bitters at home is worth it!

Step 1: Gather your ingredients

First, select a liquor that’s at least 100 proof for maximum flavor extraction and preservation. You’ll get the most neutral flavor using grain alcohol or vodka. For a similar flavor without the alcohol, you can use liquid vegetable glycerine.

Then, round up the plant botanicals that will flavor your bitters. The list of options is nearly endless (from allspice berries to black walnut leaf and wild cherry bark) so we recommend starting with bark, herbs, roots and spices in a homemade bitters kit like this one.

Step 2: Combine

Combine all the botanicals in an airtight jar with the alcohol. Store the jar in a cool, dark place for up to a month. To help distribute the flavors, you can give the jar a shake every few days. Just be sure to leave the jar sealed.

Step 3: Strain and bottle

Once it’s ready, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth and store the bitters concoction in a new, clean jar or a tincture bottle with a dropper.

Now, when you make cocktails at home, just add one to three drops of bitters for a more complex flavor profile. Cheers!

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Ceara Milligan
Ceara “Kiwi” Milligan is a professional marketing strategist and copywriter who is proud to call Milwaukee home. She loves baking, cooking, writing, listening to music, dancing, playing and hosting trivia, watching college basketball (Go Marquette!), telling lame jokes, and petting every dog that crosses her path.