We all recognize that little bottle at the bar, the one with the (usually) yellow cap and thick paper wrapping. The bartender begins mixing and pouring, stirring and shaking, and then adds just a dash of those little potent drops into your creation. Those densely flavored droplets, otherwise known as bitters, pack a mean punch for such a small amount, yet their tiny addition is essential to the quality of your cocktail. With their addition being so minimal, it’s easy to wonder just how long that bottle has actually been behind that bar. We know what you’re thinking: Do bitters ever go bad?
Bitters are the product of taking neutral spirit and infusing it with a number of aromatics, ranging from spices, bark, roots, seeds, and even fruit. Given their production with neutral spirit, these little flavor components can pack a powerful hit to your palate. In fact, most bitters tend to have an ABV of over 40 percent, the same as bourbon or vodka. This is the key to the preservation of bitters.
Alcohol acts as a natural preservative to a product; therefore, the higher the ABV, the longer the shelf life of the spirit. Although bitters most likely won’t go bad before you’re through with your bottle, their flavor and aromatics tend to break down over time. A bottle of bitters you’ve had sitting on your shelf for a year will still be O.K. to use, though all the components that make us love them so much (and why we use them) will tend to be a bit worn down. This could be the result of oxidation, evaporation, and chemical reactions occurring within the bottle.
The exception here is bitters made with fruit. Fruit bitters tend to have “refrigerate after opening” written somewhere on the bottle, implying that there is some sort of shelf life to their bottles. If you’re unsure about your refrigerated bitters, treat them like anything else you would in your fridge; give them a whiff, potentially even a taste, and if anything seems off, chuck it.
Find out more about bitters here.