‘Bitters’ make an appearance on many cocktail lists. But what exactly are they, and what do they add to your drink?
Bitters were original created as medicines, with the first examples being traced all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians, who blended wine and herbs. During the Middle Ages in Europe, advances in distillation meant stronger liquors could be made, which when blended with botanicals created much more concentrated health tonics.
The 1800s saw the European trend of combining herbs and fortified wines as a medicine reach the American colonies where distilled liquor was used much more than fortified wines.
Although bitters were still sold for medicinal use by apothecaries, pretty much from the day the term ‘cocktail’ was claimed in the early 1800s for the genre of mixed alcoholic drinks, bitters became an indispensable part of the bartenders tool kit.
So what do bitters add to a cocktail? Essentially they add a characteristic of bitter, sour or bittersweet to a drink.
There are two main types of bitters: cocktail bitters and digestive bitters.
Digestive bitters are complete drinks in themselves, and typically consumed either neat or with ice at the end of a meal. Common examples include Amaro, Aperol, Campari and Cynar from Italy; Jägermeister from Germany; and Sirop de Picon from France. Yet there are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of digestive bitters still made around the world.
Cocktail bitters are very intense so used sparsely – one or two drops or dashes – to flavour a drink. Since cocktails mainly contain sour and sweet flavours, bitters are used to engage another primary taste and thereby balance out the drink and make it more complex, giving it a more complete flavour profile.
The most familiar of the cocktail bitters is without doubt Angostura. Originally made by a German surgeon in 1824, the bitters are now distilled in Trinidad and Tobago. The number of iconic cocktail recipes that incorporate a dash of Angostura bitters is impressive: Bloody Mary, Fallen Angel, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Pisco Sour, Planter’s Punch, Rob Roy, Singapore Sling, Zombie…
If you want to find out more then you can read the whole story of Angostura – alongside lots of cocktail and food recipes which use the bitters – on their website http://angosturabitters.com/our-story/