A spritz, a dash, a drop – it’s amazing what a difference bitters can make to a drink. They are the original quick fix, capable of bringing a whole new accent to cocktails, tonic, soda. Even a mug of hot water can be improved by a piquant hit of bitters. Barely a day goes by that I don’t add them to something.
Angostura Bitters are a mainstay around the world – but they are by no means the only riff on the formula. Sticklers for tradition often prefer Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters, a reformulation of a widely used 19th-century brand. Intensely woody and spicy, with notes of eucalyptus, cardamom and orange peel, they’re strictly for cocktails of the old school.
Peychaud’s Bitters are another essential in any well-equipped bar. Born in an apothecary in the French Quarter of New Orleans around 1830, these bitters are the signature ingredient of the Sazerac whisky cocktail with their unique minty/caraway profile.
Bitters have their roots in medicinal elixirs – brands like Peychaud’s and Angostura started life as health tonics that were then mixed with booze to sweeten the pill. In line with that tradition, the St James’s pharmacist DR Harris & Co recently teamed up with Bob’s Bitters to create a new cocktail-friendly formulation of its famous “Pick-me-Up” – a botanical restorative that was favoured by Oscar Wilde. The new bitters layer up the original notes of gentian, clove and cardamom with warming ginger, liquorice, honey and a hint of bergamot. Try a few dashes in a Manhattan, or the morning after with soda, ice and a double measure of remorse.
I can’t make any medical claims for Fee’s paper-wrapped Black Walnut Bitters, but they’re a revelation in an Old Fashioned – nutty, chocolatey, with a backbone of bitter spice. Angostura’s new Cocoa Bitters are also excellent for giving whisky and rum drinks more depth.
I collect bitters like some people collect shoes – if I could only have one, though, it would be a bottle of orange bitters. They have the spice of aromatic bitters, but with a slightly sunnier disposition that works well with white spirits as well as brown. Up until Prohibition, martinis were made with a dash of orange bitters as a matter of course. Three varieties I have on heavy rotation are Bitter Truth Orange Bitters (juicy and zesty), Angostura Orange Bitters (spicier) and Regans’ Orange Bitters (bittersweet in a more Campari‑like way).
For a pithier citric bite try Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters – a couple of dashes gives a Margarita or a Daiquiri real edge. Or freshen up your tonic with an anise-y blast of Bitter Bastards Fennel Bitters.
If you don’t like the astringent spice notes of traditional bitters, try one of the burgeoning number of cocktail sprays. The natural essences from Tuscany’s Santa Bianca (£31.95, thewhiskyexchange.com) are so good I’m not sure whether to spritz them on myself or on my drink – flavours include grapefruit, cedarwood, jasmine and damask rose. Linden Leaf also does an excellent quintet of Cocktail Elements sprays including lime and yuzu.
This summer, I’ll be droppering The Japanese Bitters’ Shiso Bitters into lemonade and making G&Ts scented with Meadowsweet Tincture from the Isle of Harris. A tonic for body and soul.