In the 1800s, bitters were synonymous with a most unlikely industry: medicine.
Used to cure ailments like coughs, stomach aches and kidney disease, people started realizing that bitters were much better in drinks. (Still, it’s hard not to wonder at their restorative qualities after a few sips of an Old Fashioned, which famously uses a few dashes of Angostura Aromatic Bitters.)
A resurgence in craft cocktailing and the farm-to-table movement have thrown this once-obscure ingredient back in the spotlight. And now that dozens of brands and bartenders are creating their own versions of the aromatic additives—flavored with everything from roots, barks, herbs, fruits and spices—they’re becoming harder to ignore.
And why would you? Bitters may not be a cure-all for ailments, but they sure can cure an ailing drink. A dash of bitters often turn a cocktail from humdrum to exceptional. Think of it like the salt-and-pepper of the cocktail world.
Add these five bottles of bitters to your home bar arsenal. Your drinks will never be wanting again.
Though most bitters have been relegated to craft cocktail bars, Angostura has endured in all types of joints over the past two centuries—from dives to hotel and airport bars. The brand is a quintessential ingredient in classic and modern cocktails, and its famed (and secret) recipe has remained the same since 1824. Hell, you can even cook with them!
If you’re going to invest in just one bottle of bitters, Angostura is your answer.
Speaking of the Sazerac, these ruby red bitters are an essential component of the classic. Created in New Orleans in 1838 by apothecary owner Antoine Amedie Peychaud, Peychaud’s Bitters were an essential ingredient in the drink, along with Sazerac Brandy. Over the years, the cocktail’s recipe has been altered countless times, and now often employs rye whiskey, absinthe and Angostura Aromatic Bitters—but always in addition to the original aromatic, Peychaud’s.
The Sazerac is only one way to showcase Peychaud’s particular flavor, which is sweet and anise-forward, rather than heavily herbal. Like Angostura, it’s incredibly versatile and a wonderful addition to cocktails, including the Vieux Carré and Spiced Rhubarb Gimlet. It also has a special way of sprucing up a boring glass of seltzer.
Also of note, Bitter Truth’s Creole Bitters appeared on the market in 2010. While styled after Peychaud’s, its noticeably less sweet and more herbal. If you already have a bottle of the stalwart Peychaud’s, give this newer take a try.
To round out a formidable start to your home bitters arsenal, snag bottle of orange bitters. The flavor is far more straightforward than Angostura and Peychaud’s, both of which could leave you guessing their contents, and, frankly, no Dry Martini is complete without them.
Aside from its traditional offering, Angostura also has its own version of orange bitters, which are lovely. Another fantastic orange bitter comes from veteran mixologist and cocktail guru Gary (aka Gaz) Regan. His Regan Orange Bitters No. 6—named for the number of attempts it took to perfect the recipe—are luscious and spicy.
Lastly are The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters. A solid brand all-around, this citrus flavor is one of its strongest offerings.
Now that your bitters arsenal is taking shape, it’s time to round it out with a couple of less classic bottles. Gin & Tonics practically beg for a little something extra. The first good option? Straightforward and juicy Scrappy’s Grapefruit Bitters.
The second, Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters, wields even more bitter power. Hops and grapefruit complement each other and lend themselves well to flavoring all kinds of drinks. Try them in an Old Fashioned or a Martini.
With the previous four bottles, you’ve got a sturdy grouping of bitters for any home bar. Plus, you’re now off to a great start to learning how to experiment with aromatics and seasoning cocktails. Once you’re sucked into this flavorful world, it may turn into an obsession. If you want to keep adding to your collection, there are literally dozens of brands of bitters on shelves now.
Two solid choices are The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters (a bit trickier to use, but a blast to experiment with) and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters. Both pack impressive flavor and aroma and can hold their own in a cocktail.