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Cocktail Bitters

What Are Good Cocktail Bitters?

Cocktail bitters are increasing in popularity as more and more people discover both craft and classic cocktails.  New types and flavors of cocktail bitters are popping up in the market almost daily.  There is just about a type of cocktail bitters for just about every flavor profile and create to enhance just about every major type of spirit.  The question often asked is; are these bitters good?

To judge cocktail bitters, you really should immerse yourself in the rich history of this cocktail ingredient.  Cocktail bitters were literally a required part of every cocktail in the days prior to prohibition.  In fact, one cocktail was developed to just to see if a cocktail could pass muster without the use of cocktail bitters.   The bitters used during this period were made by steeping (macerating) herbs, roots, flowers and spices in alcohol.  The herbs, roots, flowers and spices were then strained from the alcohol leaving their flavors imparted in the solution.  The bitters were then both diluted and bottled or aged (in oak barrels for instance), diluted and then bottled.  Some recipes were colored naturally using flowers or caramel coloring.  The exact methods, ingredients and procedures can easily researched by flipping through one of the many different bar books authored by bartenders from that period.  These are the benchmarks for the resurging cocktail bitters and how they should be judged.

The modern era affords many shortcuts for bitters manufactures to take to both save money and speed up the production process.  These shortcuts includes the following:

1. Using glycerin to extract the flavors from the spices and herbs instead of alcohol.
2. Using artificial dyes to color the bitters.

When judging cocktail bitters, you should consider these shortcuts.  There are bitters manufactures that avoid these techniques and make their products using time-honored traditions free of artificial ingredients and dyes.  Two bitters companies that do things the old-fashioned way are Scrappy's and Bittermens.  Others do too but we just don't stock them yet.