Just what the hell are bitters?

Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters, in many flavors

Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters, in original or flavored

A friend sent me a Wall Street Journal article on recreating an 1896 dinner that included a drink recipe with bitters in it.

But [Mr. Kimball] also discovered perfection in a 19th-century punch (4 tablespoons sugar, 8 tablespoons lime juice, 1 cup rum, 1 cup water, pinch of nutmeg, 5 drops bitters—combine, then pour over ice). “It was so good,” he says, “that we have been drinking it ever since.”

If they had bitters in 1896, they must be somewhat organic, right? (As opposed to some sort of newfangled chemical process, which is how I had always imagined them.)


It turns out they are literally just bitter herbs marinated in high proof alcohol, such as vodka, for several months. Jamie Boudreau has written quite the definitive explanation of bitters on his blog, and included homemade recipes as well as details of the classic flavor combinations to make bitters.

This will be the ingredient that will make your bitters, well, bitter. Common ingredients are gentian, quassia or even wormwood (famous as an ingredient in absinthe). These flora are usually extremely bitter, and a little will go a long way.

This is where you have your chance to show off your creativity. Simple bitters will have one flavor, such as orange or peach or grapefruit. But the sky is the limit when it comes to bitters. Want to add vanilla-cardamom? Go for it! Lemongrass and ginger? Why not? Xocolatl Mole? Been done!

Obviously more ingredients will add more complexity to your bitters, just make sure that they play together and remember, sometimes simple one and two flavor bitters are better.

Most bitters are kept in alcohol, but you can make non-alcoholic bitters if you really wanted (they will have a very short shelf life). I usually try to find the highest proof alcohol I can get my hands on, as this seems to extract more flavor from my herbs and spices as well as give the final product an indefinite shelf life (alcohol is a preservative after all). For lighter bitters I may use a high-proof vodka or gin as my solution, while rum, whiskey and brandy are the spirits that I look to when creating heavier, darker bitters.


Here’s another recipe and explanation from the creator of Urban Moonshine, which makes a – for real – a purse-sized spray of bitters in three flavors. I guess some people just can’t let anything get between them and their bitters.

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