There Is No Substitute for Bitters
And Other Things Worth Knowing About Stocking a Righteous Liquor Cabinet
I come from a long line of whiskey drinkers. Tall glasses of bourbon and water figure prominently in childhood memories of my great-grandparents. Their kids grew up to be Beam drinkers, and while my granddaddy usually took his neat, he did endorse the Old Fashioned. “It’s a good drink,” he said. “Doesn’t dress up the bourbon too much.”
The summer I turned 21, I hung out at a bowling alley bar with a high school friend who went there for the cheap drinks and free darts. When it was my turn to order a drink, I didn’t want something girly --- I come from bourbon people, dammit. So when the bartender asked what I’d be having, I went with the first thing that came to mind: “An Old Fashioned, please.”
What he handed me was bottom-shelf brown liquor, a neon-red blob, a semicircle of orange, and a slosh of juice from the cherry bin. The drink lacked flavor, except for the harsh vaporous booze and the chewy wad of fruit at the bottom. Gross. My enthusiasm for Granddaddy’s cocktail of choice melted on the spot.
A few years and many cocktails later, I recognize that what the bartender mixed that night at the bowling alley might technically have been a cocktail, but with a lousy sweetener, a faux cherry, and no aromatic bitters, it was no Old Fashioned. This brings to mind another thing I know: There is no substitute for bitters.
The Big Deal About Bitters
Do an experiment: Mix up an Old Fashioned, or a Manhattan, or even just a shot of whiskey plus a little sugar --- but skip the bitters. Take a sip, or a few. Think about what you’re tasting.
Assuming you actually like the whiskey you’ve poured, what’s in your glass probably isn’t a terrible drink. (If you don’t like it, well, welcome to Peachtree Lanes ca. 1991.)
Now add aromatic bitters --- a couple to several shakes --- stir, and taste.
What you’ll notice might be hard to describe. It’s just better. More aromatic complexity, a little nutty or citrus-spicy or soft and faintly chocolatey, depending on which bitters you shook into the glass. The sugar’s probably a little tamer, too --- more a part of the whiskey than sloshed in like an afterthought.
As you’ve just demonstrated, aromatic bitters even out and balance and amplify the drink’s components, bringing out the best in each of them and creating a seamless whole. They complete the cocktail. And they are indispensable.
Aromatic Bitters, Defined
My 10-year-old tasted a drop of black walnut bitters the other day and declared it tasted “like vanilla extract.” That’s a decent if imprecise description; bitters are tinctures, and tinctures and extracts are similar in preparation and function. The differences are important, though: All tinctures are extracts, but not all extracts count as tinctures.
Tinctures are made by dissolving plant material --- think leaves, nuts, bark, fruits --- in alcohol. Typically a “neutral” alcohol such as vodka is used, to ensure that the tincture’s flavor and aromatic comes from the herbs and spices, not from the solvent. Extracts, on the other hand, are made by dissolving plant material in a non-alcoholic substance, like water or glycerine. Online and in stores, you may find products called bitters that use non-alcoholic bases. Purists will say those are not actually bitters, and they do have a point.
Another difference: While conventional extracts use dried materials, tinctures traditionally use fresh ingredients. As any competent home cook will tell you, that can make a huge difference in flavor. The smell of these aromatic mixtures is also hard to replicate.
But what are those ingredients, anyway? You wouldn’t be going out on a limb to surmise that orange bitters contain some component of orange, black walnut bitters some black walnut, and cocoa bitters a quantity of cocoa. But as for the rest of the ingredients, those are closely guarded trade secrets. In the case of Angostura, the most famous bitters in the world, it’s said that fewer than half a dozen people know what goes into the Angostura aromatic bitters, and that no single person knows all of the ingredients. (And that is how you keep a secret for 200 years. Well done, Angostura.)
While your grocery or liquor store probably carries a couple of bitters brands and flavors, there are more out there --- a lot more. The number of brands and flavors is overwhelming, so a little advance research helps narrow the field. Look for well-reviewed brands and flavors or aromatic profiles you’re fond of generally. (You like spicy? Savory? Fruity?) Search up recipes for bitters drinks made with your favorite liquor.
To add one more list of recommendations to the mix, here are three choices worthy of your cabinet space, plus a spare:
Angostura aromatic bitters are the bitters of choice in most American bars and households, and they’re absolutely foundational to the Old Fashioned. This is the one to start with. Angostura bitters is probably also the one your parents kept in the spice rack or liquor cabinet.
Orange bitters, whether by Angostura or another brand, are a solid choice, though there are myriad other citrus fruits represented among the bitters available online and in stores --- lemon, lime, grapefruit, and different varieties of orange bitters. Orange bitters and citrus bitters work with a wide range of liquors and cocktails, everything from martinis to margaritas, and they’re also an easy way to change up your go-to drink.
Something with a nutty aroma and flavor, like cocoa, coffee, or walnut, makes for an interesting and versatile third flavor. These aromatic bitters have serious range; in addition to cocktail and food recipes, they’re interesting in coffee and tea.
Other Brands of Aromatic Bitters
If you want to go for four, consider adding a different brand of aromatic or orange bitters to your mix. Both varieties differ significantly across brands.
So, What’s a Good Substitute for Bitters?
There is no substitute for bitters. Seriously.
That’s not a bad thing --- ready-made aromatic bitters are amazing. They make the difference between a meh mixed drink and an authentic cocktail that tastes, smells, and feels like its creator intended. Angostura and some of its competitors have been at their craft since the early 1800s and are as crucial to certain cocktail recipes as the liquor. You’ll see recipes that call specifically for Angostura (the Old Fashioned), for example, or Peychaud’s (New Orleans’ famous Sazerac).
If you’d rather not invest in multiple bottles of bitters, or you’d just like to streamline the journey from empty glass to finished cocktail, pick up some Proof syrup. All of Proof’s flavors have the aromatic bitters, sugar, and oleo saccharum measured and mixed for you. Making a cocktail literally could not be easier.
For drinkers who can’t bring themselves to trust a generations-old product, it is indeed possible to approximate the taste and smell of bottled aromatic bitters by making or faking them at home. That’s a labor-intensive process, and success is far from guaranteed.
There are a few quick-and-dirty bitters substitute recipes that call for grinding and soaking a few spices in a neutral alcohol. The resulting substance might technically contain ingredients that also appear in commercially produced bitters, but cocktails mixed with this off-the-cuff elixir won’t taste right and the aromatic profile will be off. This is because making real aromatic bitters takes time; the longer the plant material macerates in the alcohol, the more flavorful and complex the result.
Most serious bitters recipes recommend a minimum of six to eight weeks, but DIY tincture aficionados often let their concoctions sit for six months or more. That’s a good bit longer than it would take for a bottle of high-quality aromatic bitters or Proof syrup to arrive on your doorstep. It’s ages longer than a trip to the grocery store to pick up a bottle of Angostura, which is available in nearly every supermarket in America. Ultimately, the fact that there is no substitute for bitters really is as much a practical reality as a matter of taste.