The “Bitter” Truth

Mixologists are having a love affair with small batch bitters


Cambria design shown: BERWYN™

The new bitters revolution is in full bloom.

From the Rainbow Room in New York, to the best restaurants and bars in San Francisco, the bitters craze is changing cocktails and recipes one dropper at a time. Bitters date back to at least the 1700s (some say even to ancient Egypt). They were hawked as patent medicines—concoctions of herbs, roots, and barks hawked as “good for what ails you.”

Now these wide-ranging, concentrated, alcoholic, liquid ingredients are adding nuance, flavor, and surprise to cocktails.

While many are familiar with centuries-old bitters brands like Peychaud’s and Angostura, the new bitters are often handmade by bartenders and chefs. There are hundreds of small-batch bitters companies out there, and you are likely to see some at any liquor store checkout.

The secret? Many things that you might not eat outright can be dissolved in alcohol. Barks, rinds, peels, garlic can all be put in a jar with booze, then “aged” for a few weeks, and drained. Many makers have 40 or more ingredients in a jar of bitters. Spicy, special, and subtle, a couple drops of bitters can be added to a tumbler of soda water for a refreshing dinner drink, or parsed into a rare rye for a completely new experience.

Bitter tastebuds are way in the back of the mouth and are activated while everything else—the sweet and the savory of the liquor that’s being ingested—is going to town, adding complexity and balance.

Ready to geek out on herbal elixirs? Read BITTERS, the definitive guide, a James Beard Award–winning book with myriad recipes and ways to use bitters other than cocktails.

If making bitters piques your interest, here’s how to be an artisanal MAKER.