Queen Bee Mixology

A Quick Guide to Understanding Cocktail Bitters

A Quick Guide to Understanding Cocktail Bitters

Today, we’re unmasking one of the bar cart’s best-kept secrets – cocktail bitters. From your favorite Manhattans to stylish Sazeracs, bitters add a complex depth of flavor that elevates your homemade cocktails to something truly extraordinary. So, whether you’re a seasoned cocktail enthusiast or a curious home bartender, let’s venture into the diverse world of bitters!

What Are Cocktail Bitters?

When you first hear “bitters”, you might think, “Why would I want my cocktail to be bitter?” Fair question! But despite their name, bitters aren’t necessarily about making your drinks bitter. Instead, they’re more like the salt and pepper of the cocktail world, adding balance, depth, and an intriguing layer of flavor.

Bitters are highly concentrated infusions made from botanicals like herbs, spices, fruits, and roots. They’ve been a staple of cocktail recipes since the very dawn of mixology. Think of them as the secret sauce that brings your drink to life!

The History of Bitters in Mixology

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the deep roots of bitters in the world of mixology. Bitters have played a role in cocktail-making since the 1800s. Originally used for medicinal purposes, bitters were initially concocted as a digestive aid and health tonic; however, they quickly became a beloved ingredient in cocktails thanks to their ability to enhance and balance flavors. 

This revelation led to the birth of the first classic cocktails, like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan, cocktails that still stand strong on menus across the globe. From Prohibition-era speakeasies to the sophisticated bars of today, bitters have stood the test of time. Their rich history is a testament to their versatility and enduring appeal.

The Role of Bitters in Cocktails

So why are bitters important in your drink? Bitters play an integral part in blending flavors, smoothing out the rough edges of spirits, and adding complexity to your cocktail. Just a dash or two can bring about a world of difference in your Whiskey Sour or Negroni. They’re like the pinch of salt in your savory recipes – it might not seem like a significant addition, but once it’s in there, you can’t imagine your dish without it.

Think of making a cocktail as similar to composing a symphony. Spirits, whether they be gin, whiskey, or rum, are like the loud, boisterous instruments. They take center stage and command attention. But, without balance, these strong flavors can overpower the symphony and make it feel one-dimensional. That’s where bitters step in, acting as the conductor. They take those bold, brassy flavors and soften them, creating a balanced and delightful cocktail symphony.

The magic of bitters is that they tie all the flavors together. They create a rounded, full-bodied flavor profile, enhancing the sweet, sour, and even salty elements, adding depth and complexity to the overall drinking experience.

But the role of bitters isn’t confined to the glass. Bitters also play a crucial role in the overall sensory experience of cocktail drinking. Many bitters contain aromatic elements, lending not just taste but also inviting scents that contribute to the overall enjoyment of the cocktail.

Choosing the Right Bitters for Your Cocktail

When it comes to choosing the right bitters, the possibilities are endless. From the classic Angostura to unique flavors like chocolate and lavender, there’s a bitter out there for every palate and every cocktail. For a basic and reliable set, I always recommend Fee Brothers.

But the beauty of bitters extends beyond the variety available on the market. One of the most exciting aspects of cocktail bitters is the opportunity to experiment and even create your own! You can explore making homemade bitters, where you control the intensity, the balance, and the flavors. You could start with something simple like orange or lemon bitters before moving on to more complex combinations like coffee-chili or apple-cinnamon.

Are you a Manhattan lover? Try adding a dash of cherry bitters. If you’re whipping up a spicy Seattle-style Mule, try some ginger bitters for an extra zing! Or, if you’re a daring cocktail enthusiast with an experimental approach, how about cardamom bitters in your Old Fashioned?

And it’s not just the type of bitters that can be played with. The timing of when you add your bitters can also impact the final flavor profile of your cocktail. You can add bitters at the start to infuse your drink with their complex flavors, or as a finishing touch just before serving to give a burst of aroma and flavor.

Remember, experimenting is the soul of mixology. Your bar cart is your canvas, and bitters are among the most vibrant colors in your palette. So, don’t be afraid to play around, mix and match, and find your perfect blend! 

How to Use Bitters

A rule of thumb with bitters – a little goes a long way. Bitters are the epitome of the phrase “small but mighty.” Their high concentration means that just a couple of dashes can completely transform your cocktail, taking it from good to great, or even great to phenomenal. You can add your bitters at the start of your cocktail preparation, just before shaking or stirring (or as mentioned above, as a finishing touch).

Knowing when and how much bitters to use can feel like a balancing act at first. It’s best to start small, with just a dash or two, and gradually add more if you feel your drink needs it. Keep in mind, the goal is to accentuate and balance the flavors, not overwhelm them.

When starting out, you might want to stick to the classics – traditional recipes that have stood the test of time. This can give you a solid foundation to understand the role bitters play in a cocktail and how they interact with different spirits.

Explore how different bitters can change the character of your favorite drinks. Maybe swap out the Angostura in your Old Fashioned for dark chocolate bitters, the orange bitters in your Martini for lavender, or even some yuzu bitters in a Japanese-inspired cocktail!

And remember, bitters aren’t just for cocktails. They can be used in cooking, baking, or even as a finishing touch on desserts! A dash of bitters can add an extra layer of complexity to your culinary creations. From enhancing the flavors of a marinade to giving your chocolate cake a hint of unexpected depth, bitters are a versatile tool in both the bar and the kitchen! 


Cocktail bitters are the hidden gems of mixology. They enhance, elevate, and add a dash of intrigue to every sip. So, next time you’re mixing up your favorite drink, remember that bitters are not just a garnish, they’re a key player in your cocktail concoction! I hope this guide has helped you appreciate the delightful complexity that bitters bring to the mixology table. So go ahead, give them a try! Your cocktails (and your guests) will thank you.

Author Meet Kelly Sparks, the creative mastermind and cocktail influencer behind @QueenBeeMixology. While mixology may not be her day job, it is her passion. As the Founder and CEO of VMG Studios, a successful and award-winning creative agency and video production studio, Kelly brings her expertise in creativity to the world of cocktails. As a self-taught and dedicated do-it-yourselfer, Kelly makes the journey to amazing cocktails accessible to everyone. And when she’s not hard at work, you can find her sipping a delicious drink with her husband.

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