Why Add Bitters to a Cocktail?

Courtesy of Jessica Jack Wyrick
Courtesy of Jessica Jack Wyrick / Courtesy of Jessica Jack Wyrick

Bottles of bitters aren’t just cool bar decorations anymore. Adding a dash or two to a drink can add complex flavors and balance to most cocktails. However, in these small amounts, this magical ingredient won’t make the whole drink bitter. They’ll just make it better.

At their simplest, bitters are highly concentrated tinctures. Scientifically, tinctures are defined as alcohol-based extractions of plant or animal matter. Since alcohol is both a preservative and solvent, many of these bitters solutions were sold as cure-alls and stomach medicines in the 19th century and before.

According to Ted Breaux, a professional scientist and founder/president of Jade Liqueurs, this arrangement was also beneficial for sellers because, while alcoholic beverages were taxed, medicines containing alcohol were not. “Back in those days, the lines between alcoholic beverages and medicine were blurry at best,” Breaux says. Even before the word cocktail was invented, people in rural America were taking morning nips of bitters as preventatives.

In fact, alcohol-based bitters weren’t really regulated until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. It was only at that point that limits on alcohol content and medicinal claims went into effect. Between this law and Prohibition, most small producers went out of business.

A Bitter Taste in Your Mouth

Even though bitters may not have much therapeutic benefit, they can go a long way to making a cocktail tastier. Humans’ taste buds can pick up on five basic flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory (also called umami). On a very basic level, humans have a natural aversion to bitterness. For many years, scientists believed that this dislike developed as a natural safeguard against eating bitter plants, but a recent study suggests that explanation doesn’t hold up.

When combined, the five basic tastes interact in interesting ways. For example, adding an undetectable amount of salt to a bitter and sour drink can suppress the bitterness and accentuate the sour. On the other hand, adding bitter ingredients can dampen sweetness, giving rise to more complex flavor combinations.

Hit The Lab

Recently, crafting homemade bitters has become popular with professional and amateur bartenders alike. With the availability of the high-proof alcohol and various plants and herbs necessary to making bitters, it’s easy to make your own. However, choose your ingredients carefully. Even small changes can have a huge impact on the resulting taste.

Science-wise, the biggest difference in taste will stem from the proof of your base alcohol. “If you use a 90 percent alcohol by volume [ABV] instead of a 40 percent ABV, the result is completely different,” says Breaux. “Some elements in botanicals are soluble in ethanol while others are water-soluble and not as soluble in alcohol.” Most experts recommend using between 80 and 140 proof base spirits. For more information on that subject, pick up a copy of Brad Thomas Parsons’s Bitters.

Arguably, Angostura Aromatic Bitters are the most commercially available product in the market. However, small batch producers are making a comeback, and new products regularly become available. One of the many iconic classic cocktails that necessitates bitters is the Manhattan. Named for the borough of New York City, this cocktail may have originated at one of a dozen bars in the Big Apple around the 1870s.

If you’re feeling adventurous, mix up one Manhattan with bitters and one without to taste the contrast in sweetness and general flavor experience. Trust me, it’ll be a big difference.


3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 oz sweet vermouth
2 oz rye whiskey or bourbon
Orange peel for garnish

Combine all ingredient except the orange peel in a mixing glass and stir vigorously for 13-16 seconds or until thoroughly mixed. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of (or a flamed) orange peel. Enjoy.

Primary image courtesy of Jessica Jack Wyrick.