Bitters: A Brief History

From classics like The Manhattan to inventive, elaborate concoctions, plenty of cocktails call for bitters. But what exactly are bitters, and why would you want them in your drink?

In short, bitters consist of liquor that’s sharply flavored with herbs and plant elements. As is the case with plenty of vices, bitters originated out of medicinal purposes. The origin of these alcoholic mixtures, consisting of herbs like gentian, cassia, and orange peel, can be dated back to ancient Egypt, where wine was infused with herbs. By the Middle Ages, pharmacognosy (the study of medicine from natural sources), collided with readily available distilled alcohol, furthering the popularity of bitters combinations. By the 19th century, the concept of ‘the cocktail’ went on a rise in America, bringing the use of bitters with it.

There are hundreds of kinds of bitters, but many of the types you’ll see at your local bar can be divided into one of two categories. Digestive bitters, traditionally drank at the end of a meal, are often consumed neat or over ice. Think Fernet Branca, Campari, Amaro Montenegro and Jägermeister. Cocktail, or tincture bitters, are typically used in small doses: a few drops per drink. Popular brands of cocktail bitters include Angostura, Bittermens, and Peychaud’s.

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Bitters pack a whole lot of flavor. While digestive bitters are typically lower in alcohol than spirits such as, say, whiskey or gin, cocktail bitters are extremely high-proof, but sold in such small quantities you can often buy them at places that would not otherwise sell booze. You may have heard of common bitters-based cocktails like the Americano (club soda, Campari, vermouth), but many bars make their own proprietary bitters, and you can, too!

Making Your Own Bitters

This recipe teaches you how to make tincture bitters, so you can spice up your cocktail of choice.

What You’ll Need:

  • Four 4 oz Mason Jars
  • 16 Oz. Everclear
  • 4 Tsp Botanicals (suggested: use 4 different varieties, common botanicals listed below)*

In each mason jar, add 4 oz Everclear and a teaspoon of your botanical of choice. Only use one type of botanical per jar. Label each jar with the botanical used, and seal.

Shake the jars once a day, and taste regularly to see how quickly the infusion is taking place. After about two weeks, your tinctures should be ready. Strain out the solid matter with a coffee filter, and feel free to dilute your tinctures with water and a bit of sweetener. Then, go to town mixing the contents of each jar. Bitters often contain a handful of botanicals, so feel free to make more than four tinctures!

*Many spice shops sell the following common botanicals:

Juniper berries, rose hips, coriander, aniseed, caraway, cardamom, cassia, ginger, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, hawthorn berries.

You can also use dried fruits and flowers, nuts, beans, or other spice elements you think of. Get creative, experiment, and don’t be afraid to mess up—Angostura wasn’t mixed in a day.