Learn with A Bar Above


Photo by ozmafan/ CC BY


“Bitters” were originally highly concentrated bitter herbal “tinctures” that were intended for medicinal purposes. They found their way into cocktails and were a table behind the pre-prohibition bar. Technically, (according to pre-prohibition rules) a drink isn’t actually a “cocktail” unless there are bitters in it.

Bitters became less common for a long while, and with the exception of Angostura Bitters, could be hard to find.  Thankfully with the resurgence of Craft cocktails since the turn of the century there has been a huge revival in bitters and a huge variety can be purchased relatively easily online.

How They are Made:

Bitters are made in basically the same way as tinctures, with two exceptions:

  1. Bitters typically have more than one flavoring ingredient, botanical or herb (as opposed to tinctures which often focus on a single flavor)
  2. Bitters always include a bittering agent (common bittering botanicals include gentian root, cincona bark and wormwood bark.)
Photo by John Loo / CC BY

Bitters & Cocktails

Bitters can be an incredible asset behind the bar. They contribute to cocktails in three ways:

“Bartender’s Salt:”

Bitters are sometimes called “Bartender’s Salt” because they serve the purpose of adding emphasis to the flavors that already exist in a cocktail. For example, adding bitters to a Manhattan serves to “kick up” the flavor of both the bourbon and the vermouth, in the same way salt enhances the flavor of food. The complexity of the bitters adds a depth and dimension to a cocktail that can be hard to achieve with other, simpler components.

Bringing Flavor:

Especially recently, there are so many diverse flavors of bitters available that this can be a great way to not just enhance but actually add new flavors to a cocktail. Of course, it’s important to select your flavors wisely – celery bitters may be a great addition to a Gin martini, but probably not such a great candidate for a Manhattan.

Offset Sweetness:

Last but certainly not least, bitters can actually serve to mask sweetness.  While it won’t “negate” sweetness in your cocktail, a dash of bitters can take the sweet edge off while adding complexity to re-balance the cocktail overall.  We’ll talk about this concept in much more depth in the Balance chapter.