You can think of your bitters collection as the spice rack of your bar cart—essentially cocktail seasoning. These mini bottles are infused with myriad flavorful botanicals—like the herbaceous and spicy Angostura Aromatic Bitters—that shine in everything from a classic old fashioned to a tropical mai tai. Bartenders also commonly lean on orange bitters to punch up spritzes and margaritas.
In addition to the usual go-to bottles, there are lots (as in tons) of different types of bitters worth experimenting with. To help whittle down the best bitters for your at-home collection, we asked bartenders for their suggestions.
First, a quick primer on working with bitters, which includes Rule No.1: “A little goes a long way,” says mixologist Jessica King, owner of Brother Wolf, a Negroni bar in Knoxville, Tennessee. “A dash or two is all any good cocktail usually requires.”
Bartenders enjoy working with bitters because the bitter (duh), spicy, and drier flavors they bring can tame sweetening agents, like sucrose or fructose, which ultimately creates well-balanced cocktails, notes King.
While some bitters bottles can be pricey, one bottle may last a year or more. Here are 10 varieties of bitters worth investing in and experimenting with for inspired at-home cocktails.
1. Owl & Whale Persimmon Bitters
“The beauty of bitters is they can run the gamut from simple, like lemon, peach, orange, to complex—rhubarb, chamomile, pine,” says Chuckiy Bement, beverage director at The Bristol in Chicago. “These persimmon bitters are fun because, with just a drop or two, they bring about seasonal flavor to your cocktails.” Bement suggests adding them to your boozy eggnog, a mai tai, or a bourbon sour.
Bitters also can fall into the floral, fruity, or spicy categories. For the latter, try Dashfire Sichuan Peppercorn, which does a fine job capturing the Asian spice—with its surprise citrus element too. These bitters would add a kick to a spicy margarita, round out a tiki cocktail, or even bring out the woodsy nature of a bourbon drink, Bement suggests. [$15.49; caputos.com]
You’ll find a glut of orange bitters on the market. But Regan’s Orange Bitters are the most nuanced, and for that reason, bartenders swear by this brand. These ones are enhanced with warming spices—think cardamom, caraway, and coriander. “This pushes them beyond the straightforward, bright orange bitters that most lines carry,” says Brandon Gomez, bar manager at Cuyama Buckhorn in California’s Santa Barbara County. “I use these bitters in old fashioneds, margaritas, Aperol spritzes, and countless other drinks.”
No need to infuse an entire bottle of tequila with peppers to craft a phenomenal spicy margarita at home. Just put a drop (or two, if you dare) of these habanero bitters into your cocktail. “They are perfect for spicy margaritas or any cocktail you want to punch up with a little spice,” Gomez says. While they’re extremely spicy, these bitters aren’t pure fire. They have some floral notes too.
These bitters have incredible notes of leather, tobacco, chicory, and clove, describes Bruce Shultz, bartender at Amor y Amargo, a bitters-centered bar in New York City. “They’re my secret weapon in any bourbon, rye, scotch, rum, or brandy old fashioned variations,” he says. “To be honest, it almost works in any stirred drink with dark spirits.” Light up a cigar as you tipple.
Cherry vanilla bark bitters pair well with stirred drinks that have sweet vermouth (i.e. Manhattans and Negronis) because they bring out amazing hints of vanilla. “I love these bitters because they have a wonderful combo of vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa, and woodsy notes,” says Shultz.
With cinnamon and allspice, these tropical bitters go well with just about any drink you’d serve in a ceramic tiki mug. “They’re both bold and well balanced, with loads of intense warm spices like clove and star anise along with some lemon and orange to lighten things up,” says Noah Manskar, bartender at Colonia Verde in New York City. “They pair exceptionally well with aged rum, but also go nicely with whiskey.” He suggests adding them to a daiquiri for some extra body.
For the holiday season, these nutty bitters could complement your eggnog. Or try adding a dash of black walnut bitters in an old fashioned or an Amaretto sour, suggests Jeremy Wade, bar manager at Ronan in Los Angeles. “It adds warmth and a beautifully rich, nutty flavor to any winter drink,” he says.
The floral notes in these bitters have a fruit quality that holds its own and adds character to a classic daiquiri—”yet they’re delicate enough to turn a simple vodka soda into a refreshing cocktail,” says Tyler Routley, Bartender at Eight & Sand at Central Station Hotel in Memphis. Tart and bitter, they are a good addition to tiki drinks too.
“You’ll pick up on familiar cucumber notes in these bitters, but for the wild card they also have a slightly sour flavor profile,” says Greg Kong, head bartender at Kimika in New York City. Because of this, these winter melon tart bitters can accentuate the citrus profile of any shaken drink, he explains. Pair these bitters with the craft cocktails you make with clear spirits, like blanco tequilas, gins, and vodkas.