Aromatic, lavender, orange, cocoa. Bitters come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and brands. But, what exactly is a “bitter” anyways. Where did they come from? And, why do so many classic cocktails use them?
What is a “botanical?”
To understand what a bitter is, you must first understand the basic building block and essence of a bitter.
The word “botanical,” unsurprisingly, is related to the word “botany.” Or, in simpler terms, it has to do with plants. Herbs, spices, roots, flowers, and other consumable plant derivatives are all “botanicals.” It’s more or less an umbrella term for a piece of a plant that has a desirable quality. Be it for flavor, aroma, or medicinal property.
For example, a tea leaf is a dried botanical steeped to extract its essence and pass along flavor and health benefits.
Mint would be another example of a botanical. It’s harvested for its flavor, scent, and cooling properties.
Then what are bitters?
Bitters have been around since the middle ages. Medicine makers would look for ways to preserve the medicinal qualities of herbs used in common remedies. High-proof liquor had well-known preservative qualities, and an early form of bitters were made as a way of preserving and transporting medicine.
Bitters start with a proprietary recipe. Fruit, spices, leaves, roots, flowers, and other herbs are combined to form the base for the bitters.
These botanicals are then steeped in a strong, typically neutral grain spirit that leeches the flavors, aromas, and color from the base material. The reasons for a stronger neutral grain spirit are used is twofold. First, the stronger spirit more completely breaks down and preserves the botanical essences. Second, the lack of distinctive flavor found in more neutral spirits allow the essence of the botanicals to more brightly shine on their own.
The bitters are then strained and collected in their respective container for use in delicious cocktails. The naturally high alcohol content keeps the essences preserved for a longer time, allowing them to be stored easily in any home bar.
Why Do We Use Them?
Using a bitter liquid doesn’t exactly sound appealing. Therefore, one would assume we would only use them in bitter cocktails.
However, we can find bitters in all kinds of cocktails. Classic recipes from bitter to sweet use this ingredient making it a bartender staple. But, why?
The answer is to round-out the flavors in a cocktail. Mixed drinks typically carry two dominant flavors: sweet and sour. The sweet can come from a sweeter spirit, sugar, simple syrup, fruit, or something else. And, a sour flavor can come from a citrus or other ingredient. However, we know that a great drink is all about balance. And, one flavor is missing: bitter.
The combination of these flavors creates a unique sense of fullness and richness of flavor. Therefore, the use of bitters is a quick and easy way to create this essential balance and fully bring to life a cocktail.
So, the next time you’re looking to craft a new cocktail or reach for the bitters to make a recipe, appreciate the uniqueness this old-time concoction brings to the table!
Greg Sinadinos started his spirits journey writing a whiskey periodical for Fine Tobacco NYC Magazine. He began answering review requests under a social media page he named “Whiskey Culture,” which quickly merged with Greg’s passion for connecting with others and his interest in history.
Today, Greg travels the country not just looking for great whiskey, but also exploring the history and individuals that the whiskey community is founded upon. He has authored “Whiskey History From Around The World” and is the host of “The Rickhouse” web series.