There Is No Substitute for Bitters
And Other Things Worth Knowing About Stocking a Righteous Liquor Cabinet
The summer I turned 19, I spent a lot of time at a bowling alley bar with a high school friend who went there for the free darts, cheap drinks, and complete lack of drinking age enforcement. This was during that late 1980s/early 1990s period in American cocktail culture when there were a lot of dumb, trendy cocktails afoot. The idea behind most of those recipes: combine spirits, sour mix, and liqueurs to produce a highly alcoholic liquid that tastes as little as possible like alcohol and as much as possible like something it does not in any way contain, like pink lemonade, oatmeal cookies, or iced tea.
You get the idea.
About a month into this adventure, I was done with dumb and trendy. I come from whiskey people, dammit. I remember stealing a sip of my great-grandfather’s “iced tea” when I was about 3, realizing it wasn’t iced tea, all the grownups laughing. I remember my grandfather’s fondness for Jim Beam, taken neat or iced tea style (bourbon, ice, water, repeat), and his skepticism verging on snobbery about cocktails. The Old Fashioned was as much cocktail as my granddad cared to contemplate — anything more involved was a tacky, overcomplicated disaster, as far as he was concerned.
So when I felt like dumb and trendy was over, no offense to the pink lemonade crowd, I ordered, duh, an Old Fashioned.
I watched the bartender assemble ice, bottom-shelf brown liquor, a neon-red blob, an orange slice, a slosh of juice from the cherry bin, a blast from the soda gun, and more ice. It was difficult to imagine what the finished cocktail might taste like. I mean, it had to be good, right?
It wasn’t good.
I tried again, on different nights and at different bars, and pretty soon it made sense that while what the bartender mixed that night at the bowling alley might technically have been a cocktail, it was no Old Fashioned.
Never mind that every detail was off to some degree or another, a foundational ingredient — bitters — was entirely absent. No bitters? No Old Fashioned.
Unpacking the why of that is about more than memorizing bartending rules or recipes. Cocktails like the Old Fashioned are all about the spirits — not about delighting the customer with a semi-magical resemblance to gummy worms or Granny Smith apples or whatever. It’s a fundamentally different approach.
For classic, spirit-forward cocktails to work, all of the right ingredients must be present, and balanced. And in the Old Fashioned, as in so many other classic cocktails, 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 spirits you’ve poured, what’s in your glass probably isn’t a terrible drink. It's just a little boring. It's spirits, but sweeter. Not bad, just not quite finished.
Now add aromatic bitters --- a couple to several shakes --- stir, and taste again. 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. There are flavors that weren't there before, and they linger, longer. You're getting more drink from your drink.
As you’ve just discovered, aromatic bitters even out and balance and amplify a cocktail'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
A non-drinker we know tasted a drop of cocoa bitters the other day and declared it “exactly like vanilla extract.” That’s an imprecise description for sure, but it’s not completely wrong. 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 aroma comes from the herbs and spices, not from the solvent. (This isn't always the case — some pretty amazing bitters are rum- or bourbon-based, rather than vodka-based.)
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. Of course, whoever's making a particular variety of bitters might choose dry ingredients over fresh for reasons having to do with flavor or process.
Have you noticed there aren't a whole lot of hard and fast rules here? The point of making bitters is capturing a certain group of flavors at a certain intensity. The "right" ingredients are the ones that best give up those flavors into the alcohol in the way that the creator of those bitters intends, and sometimes that's dried fruit rather than the fresh version, for example, or the meat, hulls, and leaves of a nut instead of only the meat. Bitters are as much about how the ingredients are used as about what the ingredients are to begin with.
And 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 typically 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 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.)
In general, bitters contain lots of spices and herbs you're probably familiar with — allspice, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, white pepper, cardamom, coriander — along with a few you've probably never encountered except in bitters, like gentian root and wormwood.
Bitters also contain another ingredient you’re well familiar with: alcohol. Because we usually apply bitters in such tiny quantities — 2 or 3 dashes per serving, with a dash equal to about ⅛ of a teaspoon, or a little less than 2 milliliters — it’s easy to forget there’s alcohol in there, but there definitely is. Bitters are typically about 35 to 45% alcohol, about the same as, oh, nearly every spirit you can rattle off the top of your head. We tend to think of the alcohol in them as negligible, but it’s not. Drink enough of them, and bitters’ll get you drunk.
How to Use Bitters
Method #1: In Cocktails, Mixed With the Other Ingredients
Most bitters cocktails call for adding bitters during the mixing process. The Old Fashioned and manhattan both work this way — you add bitters along with the core spirit and other ingredients, stir with ice, strain into your glass.
Added this way, bitters are distributed evenly throughout the cocktail, serving to balance sweet, sour, savory, herbal and other flavor elements. If it helps, think of bitters as a kind of flavoring connective tissue among disparate flavors. They make a cohesive whole out of a lot of very distinct, differently flavored parts.
Method #2: In Cocktails, Added at the End
Other cocktails, like the classic whiskey sour, call for bitters at the end of the cocktail — like a garnish, or a floater.
Why add bitters at the end? Dropped on top right before serving, bitters enhance a beverage’s aroma, much like expressed oils from a citrus peel. Keeping the bitters right up top puts them close to your nose, which makes for more olfactory impact. The bitters will still incorporate into the body of the cocktail to some degree, but by lingering up at the top, they also give a nice aromatic boost to the overall experience.
The bitters dropped atop a shaken-and-poured whiskey sour add aroma and flavor, and help balance the sweet and sour elements. This works to most interesting effect when you’ve made the sour with the traditional egg white (or aquafaba, or other frothing agent). In this use, the froth holds the bitters in place atop the cocktail, so you get to enjoy more of the aroma before sipping them down.
In our passion fruit sour, bitters amp up the tropical vibe with the scent and flavor of allspice and cloves. (Pro tip: Our Coconut-Pineapple Proof Bitters, coming out soon, would be incredible atop a passion fruit sour.)
Method #3: Heavily. Very, Very Heavily. (And All by Themselves.)
A very few cocktails, like the Trinidad sour, call for relatively vast quantities of bitters. Like, an ounce to an ounce and a half, depending on which recipe you’re using. (We recommend this one.)
And we’ve heard that in the far reaches of the American Midwest, you can belly up to a bar and just order a shot of bitters, just plain ol’ bitters, no spirit or liqueur or anything, and nobody’ll even look at you funny.
You know you want to, so go ahead and try it — shake out a half-ounce or so of Angostura aromatic bitters and have at it. It’s not bad, and you might find your appreciation for bitters grows as you explore in more detail what your bitters actually taste like.
Tasting them on their own gives you a sense of what to “look” for as you sip and sniff your bitters-infused cocktails, and it offers clues as to how you might adjust flavors and quantities to achieve different effects. It’s also useful in gauging how heavily to apply them in cocktails, because particularly with fruity and spicy bitters, flavor intensity can vary a lot from brand to brand.
Method #4: Non-Boozily
At the risk of sounding dumb and trendy by giving this particular advice at this particular moment, when bitters-and-soda drinks are available by the can and on every food blogger’s lips and popping up on menus and everywhere else… try bitters in club soda.
Seriously, it’s delicious.
We like to fill a Collins glass, Proof 20 oz tumbler, or whatever else is handy with cubed or crushed ice, shake in a healthy dose of whatever bitters we’re in the mood for at the moment, add a citrus wedge or peel, and pour a can of chilled club soda over the whole shebang.
The result is a flavorful, refreshing, barely alcoholic cocktail that avoids the sometimes cloying fruitiness of fruit-essenced sparkling waters.
Bitters and soda feels like an actual cocktail, even though the amount of alcohol is vanishingly small. This makes it a nice alternative to a full-strength cocktail when for whatever reason you’re tee-totaling.
And, if you have second thoughts about the no-alcohol part, add 1 ½ oz to 2 oz vodka or gin and boom: cocktail. (Always good to have options.)
Method #5: In Food
Just a few of the edible uses for bitters:
- in whipped cream atop desserts or beverages (shake in a few drops during the whipping stage)
- in baked goods, in place of vanilla or other extracts (nut bitters in banana bread? Yum.)
- in marinades for beef, poultry, or whatever other protein you’re marinating
- in soups and gravies
- in salad dressings
- in coffee, tea, and hot cocktails
Which Bitters to Buy: Stocking Your Bar
While your grocery or liquor store probably carries a couple of bitters brands and flavors, there are more out there --- a lot more. Here are some tips for finding bitters you’ll enjoy and actually use.
Go with what you like. You like spicy? Savory? Fruity? There’s a bitters for that, probably several.
Go where the spirit moves you. Search up recipes for bitters drinks made with your favorite spirits. Often, Angostura is the default bitters setting, but if you spend some time on imbibemagazine.com, liquor.com, diffordsguide.com, and similar sites, you’ll find recipes that call for other specific brands and flavors of bitters. Jackpot! You’re not going to know what you like until you start mixing with it.
Buy a set. You’ll get more enjoyment out of your bitters experimentation if you’ve got more than a couple of flavors to work with. Every bitters maker we can think of sells bitters sets, which — while sometimes pricey — are a great way to accumulate bitters experience. Don’t fret about having “too many” bitters, because their long shelf life (around 5 years) and versatility mean that you’ll find plenty of ways to use them before they lose their oomph.
Get to Googling. 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. Googling up a list of recommended bitters, “best bitters of 2022,” or “bitters every bar must have” is easy enough. To add one more list of recommendations to the mix, here are some choices worthy of your cabinet space.
Recommended Best Must-Have Bitters Right Now
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. It's one we at Proof Syrup keep in our kitchen cabinets, and we've got our own line of bitters. Angostura is just that indispensable.
Orange bitters are another 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. A bottle of Orange Proof Bitters is a great choice for this (if we do say so ourselves).
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 great in coffee and tea. Black Walnut and Pecan Proof Bitters are designed to cover all your nutty bitter needs; added bonus: nobody else makes pecan bitters — we’ve seen pecan-chicory, pecan-coffee, and pecan-other stuff, but ours are the only pecan-only bitters we’ve found on the market.
Other Brands of Bitters
Every bitters maker has their own, top-secret bitters recipes, so just by buying a different brand you’ll broaden the flavors available in your bar.
Peychaud's comes to mind here — it's an aromatic bitters but significantly different in flavor from Angostura. It's foundational to the Sazerac cocktail and delicious in club soda.
Different Flavor Families
If you want to branch out flavor-wise, consider adding bitters with herbal or vegetable flavors — gin lovers could get a lot of use from lavender bitters, for example. Cardamom bitters are just delicious in vodka sodas (or just plain club soda). Celery bitters add depth and richness to bloody Marys, if you're into that.
Fruity and tropical (or tiki) bitters are another great choice — and as it happens, Proof makes peach bitters (brilliant in bellinis and smashes) and coconut-pineapple bitters (perfect in sours and tropical cocktails)
Bottom line, though: You can’t really go wrong. Think of bitters as spices in your spice rack. Do you use every spice in there, every single day? Of course not. But they’re there when you need them, or when an interesting use presents itself.
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 their bitters 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).
For DIY-ers 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, though, and success is far from guaranteed.
A few quick-and-dirty bitters substitute recipes call for grinding and soaking ingredients 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 two 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.