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What makes a cocktail a cocktail? The earliest answer comes from an 1806 newspaper story, which states that the difference between this new-fangled invention and other alcoholic drinks is the addition of bitters. The ingredient was a bar staple during the 19th century, but up until recently most bartenders treated it like an optional garnish.
The truth is bitters are much more than ornamental and actually serve a purpose. Like a bit of salt in soup, they help bring a cocktail together and add some depth. For example, a few dashes of bitters transform rye and vermouth into a Manhattan.
Before people started adding them to spirits, bitters were used to aid digestion and “cure” a range of ailments, including an inactive liver. Similar to other early medicines, they were made by infusing alcohol with tree bark, herbs, spices and fruit peels. (The same process holds to this day.) Bitters and booze got along swimmingly, but they began to disappear after the turn of the century when the government cracked down on supposed “cure-alls.” They completely fell out of favor after Prohibition.
For decades, the only bitters around were made by Angostura and Peychaud’s. But the recent popularity of vintage mixology has created a craze for a wide variety of bitters—orange, celery, maple—and hopefully, ensures that they’ll never disappear again.
Liquor.com’s Bitters Buying Guide
You can’t make a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned without them.
Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6
($7.99 for a 10 oz bottle):
A dash of orange bitters will change the way you think about a gin Martini forever.
Peychaud’s have a pronounced anise flavor that pairs terrifically with cognac and rye whiskey. They are mandatory for making a Sazerac.
The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
($21 for a 6 oz bottle):
Start by adding them to a Bloody Mary before moving on to other vodka, gin and especially tequila cocktails.
Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters
($17 for a 4 oz bottle):
A favorite of cocktail geeks, these limited-edition bitters are released each year.
Camper English is a journalist and publisher of the cocktails and spirits blog Alcademics.