Understanding Bitters

Glancing through a book of cocktail recipes you are sure to encounter one ingredient over and over again: bitters. Since the emergence of the cocktail itself as a way of masking the taste of cheaply made prohibition-era spirits, bitters have been relied upon to impart a complex flavor profile to alcoholic beverages. However, it can be difficult to pin down what exactly these herbaceous elixirs actually are. The two most popular bitters – Angostura and Peychaud’s – are the result of a proprietary mixture of herbs and spices. While these commercially-available bitters may be foundational ingredients in making a proper Old Fashioned or Sazerac, homemade bitters are relatively easy to make and will add a touch of personality to your cocktails.

History of bitters
Bitters were originally used for their medicinal properties during the 19th Century. During that time apothecaries would infuse high-proof alcohol with a variety of natural ingredients in order to capture the healing properties of a variety of plants. Over time, people began adding bitters to spirits in order to enhance the flavor. As a result, many historic cocktails have become linked to specific bitters.

Types of bitters
Angostura bitters are the default flavoring for most cocktails. Developed by a Trinidadian company, these bitters are recognizable for their notes of clove and allspice. The second most popular bitters, Peychaud’s, was developed by Antoine Peychaud in New Orleans. With flavors of licorice and anise, Peychaud’s is a necessary ingredient for the traditional New Orleans cocktail the Sazerac. The recent cocktail revolution has revived a third type – orange bitters. This style of bitters is reminiscent of an orange rind. Aside from these three, many companies produce their own specialty bitters.

Making bitters at home
For those who would like more creative control over their cocktails, consider making your own bitters at home. All bitters are comprised of three essential elements: bittering agent, flavoring, and alcohol. Common bittering agents are gentian and quassia while flavorings can range from cinnamon and vanilla to peppermint and cardamom. To make your own bitters simply soak your chosen ingredient mixture in a medium with high alcohol content (ideally 50 percent ABV). After a few months, filter out the liquid and start mixing your own unique cocktails! Homemade bitters also make a great gift for friends and family.

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