I get this and similar questions all the time. What are bitters anyway? Can they go bad? What are they used for?
My easy answer? Bitters are to bartending what salt and pepper are to cooking. Can you eat a meal without seasoning? Sure- but given the choice, I’d take that flavor, that je ne sais quoi, that umami anyday.
Bitters are used primarily for their flavor, and with such high concentrations of it, it’s no wonder they’re most often sold in small bottles and measured in dashes.
The vast majority of bitters are alcohol-based. When you inspect the labels, you’ll likely find that they list an ABV, just like your vodka or bourbon, that is somewhere around 45% alcohol. As such, they cannot “go bad”; you can store them on your shelves right next to your liquor bottles or spices; no refrigeration necessary.
I’d like to elucidate the topic with a comparison. Think of tea - hot water is a solvent in which the active ingredients of tea leaves dissolve to make a flavorful cup of tea. Leave a tea bag in its water for 2-5 minutes and you’ll get a slightly bitter, slightly tannic beverage of dark brown with woody or grassy aromas. Leave that same bag in for 10 minutes or more and those aspects will all be more pronounced.
Alcohol is a much more powerful solvent. It extracts the elements of whatever’s inside, like botanicals, with much more intensity. By botanicals, I’m referring to any of the many roots, barks, herbs, spices, flowers and other naturally occurring ingredients that can add immense flavor, aroma and texture to a drink. Citrus peels are often used, as are other dried fruits and nuts.
These botanicals are macerated in alcohol for a long period of time, extracting a desired amount of flavor and bitterness.
Bitters can be made domestically or abroad, and the alcohol can be made from any base - sugar cane like rum, grain like vodka or whiskey, even fruit like brandy. And of course the botanicals can be anything under the sun (and legally allowed in any certain region!). That’s why there can be endless possibilities and so many out there!
As far as making my own bitters goes, I’m a bartender by trade. I make drinks, or as I would rather see it, I make experiences using drinks as the vehicle.
I once worked with a chef who used Coca-Cola® to marinate a steak. When guests asked him if he made his own soda, he would respond, “who do I think I am that I might be able to out-Coke Coke® ?!” I have a similar philosophy. I have been so pleased by the bounty of bitters out there that I’ve never found myself frustrated with the inability to source some incredibly intense tincture to suit my needs. I do think it’s possible to out-Ango Angostura. I’ve had it. Which is why I don’t feel the need to try and do it myself.
So there you have it - bitters often have an alcoholic-based solution that is heavily flavored with botanicals to season craft drinks. They are usually bitter, sometimes extremely bitter, and as far as using them goes, at Hey Bartender we always encourage experimentation.
First, try your bitters the way I and all my bartenders would behind the bar - dash a tiny bit on the back of your hand and lick it off. When you start making drinks, split them in two glasses and try different bitters in each one to see what works for you and what doesn’t. Combine them! See if you can pick them up when you use the smallest amount possible. See what happens when you use way too much. Try marinating your steaks with them. Dash some in your next dip or salsa. And if you’re feeling especially brazen, pull out the dasher top and pour yourself a shot!
We have partnered with The Bitter Housewife, a fellow female-founded brand, to create our exclusive Hey Bartender Bitters Collection. It includes three of the bitters we use in our cocktail kits: Aromatic, Barrel Aged and Cardamom. Get crafting!