What Are Bitters?

Bitters are a key ingredient in a classic Champagne cocktail. They also have a cool history. Preview: They almost got wiped out thanks to Prohibition and found a resurgence, thanks to everyone’s favorite ad man.

Bitters are a key ingredient in a classic Champagne cocktail. They also have a cool history. Preview: They almost got wiped out thanks to Prohibition and found a resurgence, thanks to everyone's favorite ad man.

Bitters are found in every well-stocked bar, but what the heck are they? Good question.

Bitters are plant extracts steeped in alcohol. They aren’t meant to be sipped alone. They’re so concentrated that you probably couldn’t even get it down. Yup, they taste that bad. But a drop or two added to a cocktail? Sublime. It’s kind of like how by itself ground cinnamon tastes pretty bad (don’t believe me? Try putting 1/4 teaspoon of it in your mouth. Dissssgusting). But added to any sweet thing, it’s seriously good. Bitters are like that too.

The two most commonly used bitters have been around since the 1800s — Peychaud’s and Angostura. Peychaud’s adds a floral hint to drinks, and is an ingredient in a Sazerac, a strong cognac or whiskey cocktail. Angostura Bitters have warm hints of cinnamon, cardamon and nutmeg. Angostura gives Champagne cocktails a deeper flavor and a beautiful golden color. You only need a drop or two to get amazing flavors. Find out how to use bitters in a Classic Champagne Cocktail over here.

Bitters were originally made to use as medicine. Some say the Egyptians in ancient times steeped herbs in wine. That practice continued throughout the ages. The bitters we know today really came into use in the early 1800s, and were then used as digestive aids.

Later bitters became a staple in cocktails — think Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and Champagne cocktails.

Prohibition almost wiped out the industry. Only Angostura and Peychaud’s survived. But bitters fell out of vogue even after Prohibition. They were used only rarely and in some pretty uncommon and untrendy drinks.

We can thank Don Draper for the resurgence of bitters today.  Mad Men has brought back traditional cocktails, and with them bitters have come back big time. Bitters are now madly in vogue, and you can find all different flavors — orange, grapefruit, lime, lemon, cocoa, black pepper, cherry, root beer, apple and celery (here’s a set of 6 different intriguing flavors to try out). These days you can throw a dash of grapefruit bitters into a margarita. Or sip a martini with black pepper bitters.  I’m waiting for cotton candy flavored bitters, and it’s probably just a matter of time since there really are some cool artisan bitters out there.

How’s that for a comeback story?

This post originally appeared in December, 2015 and was revised and republished in December, 2016.

Amy Bowen

Amy had no clue how to cook until she became the food reporter for a daily newspaper in Minnesota. At 25, she even struggled with boxed mac and cheese. These days, Amy is a much better cook, thanks to interviewing cooks and chefs for more than 10 years. She even makes four cheese macaroni and cheese with bacon, no boxed mac in sight. Amy is also on the editorial team at The Cookful.