Over the past 15 years we’ve witnessed a bitters boom, with aromatic bitters going from the cocktail world’s endangered species list to a category in need of a serious culling.
Back in 1999, when Ryan Maybee, of Kansas City, Missouri’s J. Rieger & Co. distillery and its speakeasy bar, The Hey! Hey! Club, first started tending bar, there were only two major brands available: Angostura and Peychaud’s. “It was nearly impossible to find any orange bitters on the market,” says Maybee. Now, he acknowledges, there are so many brands available that “the window is closing for any new brands or flavors to really have an impact and become a staple behind the bar.”
The consequences of this bitters renewal were already on the horizon over a decade ago as I was writing Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, my book on the subject. In fact, I often think back to a conversation I had with Jim Meehan in 2010 one evening at PDT when he gestured to the dozen-plus bottles of bitters lined up on the bar, and expressed concern about what was to come on the bitters front.
Today, a dozen seems quaint. There are easily over 50 brands producing hundreds of flavors of bitters, with more brands coming to market every year. Variations on the more common aromatic and orange varieties have spawned a spectrum covering every imaginable riff on citrus, spice and vegetal notes. “If you can think of a flavor that you’d like in a bitters, it probably exists,” says Sother Teague, beverage director of Overthrow Hospitality, which includes New York’s bitters-focused bar and retail shop, Amor y Amargo.
In turn, what has been described as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world has transformed into an entire spice rack. This wealth of bitters has created a conundrum for home bartenders: How do you know which bitters are worth buying and which you might want to skip? And which bitters have joined the canon of classics and which will barely be remembered?
To answer the question, I surveyed top bartenders across the country with that very query, and after sorting through their favorites, present a ranked lineup of essential bitters along with a handful of wildcard picks. Ultimately, though, it’s about what you like to drink at home and experimenting with the particular bitters that may enhance or elevate that experience. On my bar cart, you’ll always find Angostura, Peychaud’s, Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 and Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters. But that doesn’t mean I won’t reach back in the collection from time to time to pull out something a bit more esoteric.
TOP 10 ESSENTIAL BITTERS
Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Angostura bitters were created by German doctor Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in 1824 in Venezuela, where he was serving as surgeon general for Simón Bolívar. In the 1870s, Siegert’s sons moved the company to Trinidad, where the House of Angostura still resides, producing the distinctive yellow-capped bottle with the oversized label seen in bars and homes around the world. Maybee says there are “too many classics to list that call for it,” but among those are the Old-Fashioned, Manhattan and Champagne Cocktail. Brian Kane, general manager at Wilder in Philadelphia, notes, “Ango is always used to add stand-alone depth of spice and finish to almost anything it meets.” Julia Momosé, partner and creative director of Kumiko in Chicago, adds, “Most modern aromatic bitters are modeled after Angostura bitters. Why deviate from the tried and true?”
- Price: $28
- ABV: 44.7%
Peychaud’s Aromatic Cocktail Bitters
“Don’t even think of making a Sazerac with anything else,” warns Maybee. The distinctive cherry-colored bitters most associated with New Orleans and its famous hometown cocktails, like the Sazerac and the Vieux Carré, were created in 1838 by Antoine Amédée Peychaud. A bit sweeter than Angostura with distinctive notes of anise, these can also be put to use in the Seelbach and Sawyer cocktails.
- Price: $8
- ABV: 35%
Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6
We’ve gone from a landscape of trying to track down orange bitters to now having to contend with which orange bitters to buy. While Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6—created by noted bar instructor and writer Gaz Regan and released in 2005—are a modern entrant, they have quickly become the benchmark. Not to mention that their distinctive spicy profile, with notes of cardamom and coriander, helped ignite the current bitters boom. Two other popular orange bitters options come from Angostura and Fee Brothers: Angostura Orange Bitters, introduced in 2007, offer bright floral notes and fresh orange peel, while Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters possess a candylike sweetness; for a time, it was popular among bartenders to make a hybrid by combining equal parts Regans’ and Fee Brothers, dubbed “Feegan’s.”
- Price: $12
- ABV: 45%
Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
The portfolio of bitters from Avery and Janet Glasser of Bittermens is among the most respected in the bartending community. The Xocolatl Mole bitters, the first of their two original bitters created in 2007, combine cacao and cinnamon with other spices, and are at home among dark spirits, rum and tequila. “It really stands up to drinks and adds flavor with a touch of bitterness,” says Meaghan Dorman, bar director at Raines Law Room and Dear Irving. The mole bitters have become a secret weapon for bartenders, who turn to them for an added aromatic accent to all varieties of shaken and stirred cocktails. “I love the depth that the mole bitters add. It’s a level of complexity that can take any cocktail, like a Daiquiri, from summer to fall,” says Sean Umstead, co-owner of Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina. “They excel with any aged spirit, as well as herbaceous agave distillates.”
Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters
The Pacific Northwest hops used in Bittermens’ other 2007 release “are floral but also bitter,” according to Teague. “Combined with the citrus, these are an easy step past orange bitters.” He likes using them in Martinis, Gin & Tonics and White Negronis, while Momosé says they’re “amazing in bright, citrus cocktails such as the Hemingway Daiquiri, Paloma or a Corpse Reviver.” This is the expression I find myself recommending the most after Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters. I like a few drops in my Gin & Tonics, but also use them, along with a dash of Angostura, to soak a sugar cube in a Champagne Cocktail.
Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters
Featuring cinnamon, allspice, ginger and cardamom, Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters started out as a custom blend from the Glassers for a bartender friend who was opening a restaurant with a serious tiki pedigree. After loads of positive feedback, the formula went into commercial rotation in 2008. As the name implies, they play well in tiki and tropical drinks, such as John deBary’s blue Shark cocktail. Chris Elford, co-founder of Seattle bars Navy Strength and Trade Winds Tavern, is also a fan. “The cola, leather and island spice make this a classic for me,” he says.
Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters
Founded in 2009 by Milwaukee bartenders Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz, Bittercube uses no premade extracts or flavors in their blends. Their Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters, which use an aged whiskey base, are a favorite of LiveWire founder Aaron Polsky. “The medium- and high-toned spice is almost tonka [bean]–like, and adds magical top notes to rum,” he says. With a profile of dried fruit and floral aromatics, they’re also great in Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours.
- Price: $24
- ABV: 38%
Scrappy’s Celery Bitters
Founded by Seattle bartender Miles Thomas and launched in 2008, the lineup of Scrappy’s Bitters is another bartender favorite. Momosé especially admires the brand’s take on celery bitters for their “gorgeous balance of celery leaves, celery seed and perceived hints of dill and fennel pollen,” adding that they’re “delicious in savory cocktails such as Martinis or Bloody Marys.” Erin Ashford, bar manager of Olamaie in Austin, Texas, is admittedly “obsessed” with this Scrappy’s expression. “The celery bitters added a dry, crisp midpalate, reminiscent of bitter, green, crunchy veggies,” she says. “I love the savory and vegetal element they bring to a tequila drink or stirred gin cocktail.”
- Price: $20
- ABV: 49.7%
The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters
The Bitter Truth, launched in 2006 by Munich bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck, was one of the first modern bitters makers to break out onto the global scene. Released in 2008, their Jerry Thomas Bitters are an homage to the 19th-century bitters recipe from the legendary American bartender; a Demerara rum serves as its base, which is then flavored with cloves, dried fruit, citrus and Angostura bark.
- Price: $20
- ABV: 30%
Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters
Created in 2012 by iconic bartender Dale DeGroff in collaboration with the French distiller T.A. Breaux, DeGroff’s namesake bitters spotlight the pimento (aka allspice) berry as the star ingredient. “Its pretty singular note of allspice blends pretty seamlessly with lots of flavors,” says Teague. “Substitute [it] for Ango in classics, but [it’s] also great with citrus in modern drinks as well as tiki drinks.”
- Price: $15
- ABV: 45%
The Japanese Bitters Umami
Founded by bartender Yuki Yamazaki, The Japanese Bitters heralded the arrival of Japan’s first domestically produced bitters company. The small-batch bitters, first widely released in 2020, are available in yuzu and shiso flavors, but it’s the umami expression (made with dried kelp, bonito and shiitake mushrooms) in particular that has attracted attention from bartenders. “The addition of umami shouldn’t just be relegated to the Bloody Mary,” says Austin Hennelly, bar director at Kato Restaurant in Los Angeles. “A few dashes in a Martini and the drink becomes a savory experience without reaching for the heavy-handed brine, and several drops transforms a spicy Margarita into something more than the sum of its parts.”
- Price: $42
- ABV: 27%
Scrappy’s Black Lemon Bitters
There’s no actual black lemon (a dehydrated lime used in Middle Eastern cooking) in this release from the Seattle craft bitters producer. Instead, it relies on fresh lemon flavor and aromatic floral notes, with a backbone of earth spices to evoke the essence of black lemon. “They’re an essential bitter for adding a great citrus yet spice-forward flavor to a cocktail. These bitters have a great floral, earthy and almost smoky complexity,” says James Bolt, owner of The Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina. “This makes them perfect to balance a citrus cocktail, but versatile enough to hold up to a serious stirred option,” he says, adding that he also likes to add a few dashes to a Gin & Tonic, Aperol Spritz or a Corpse Reviver. Ashford likewise turns to the black lemon bitters as an alternative way to introduce citrus into a stirred drink. “They can bring that hint of citrus and also add an earthy element,” she says. “One dash in a London dry gin Martini can create a whole new experience.”
- Price: $20
- ABV: 47%
Miracle Mile Bitters Co. Yuzu Bitters
Hennelly would be remiss if he didn’t champion a selection from Miracle Mile Bitters Co., Los Angeles’ hometown hero of bitters development. The handcrafted lineup from film executive–turned–bitters creator Louis Anderman includes a mix of foundational expressions like sour cherry and Chocolate Chili alongside more experimental releases like gingerbread and toasted pecan, but Hennelly considers the yuzu to be the standout. He prescribes skipping the “jaded bartender routine” next time a guest orders a Lemon Drop, instead slipping a few drops of yuzu bitters in the mix for the best version they’ve ever had. “Use this bright and bracing tincture anywhere other citrus bitters would apply to alter the aromatics into something unexpected,” he says.
- Price: $20
- From: 45%
Angostura Cocoa Bitters
Angostura Cocoa Bitters, launched in 2020, is only the third expression to be introduced to the brand’s bitters lineup in its nearly 200-year history. The distinctive notes of nutty cocoa and warm spices play particularly well with sweet vermouth and aged spirits, as well as in an Espresso Martini. Bolt finds they add “great depth and extra full-bodied flavor” to Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans and Negronis, but also to citrus-forward drinks like a 20th Century cocktail. “The deep rich notes of cocoa combined with perfectly matched botanicals and bitterness make these a staple,” he says.
- Price: $12
- ABV: 48%
Bitter Truth Cucumber Bitters
With notes of pepper, aromatic herbs and flowers accompanied by the vegetal freshness of cucumber, these bitters were made for an easy-drinking Bitters & Soda or a Pimm’s Cup. “Bitter Truth Cucumber Bitters enables a bartender to employ the cooling, green and vegetal notes of cucumber without waste, prep or unnecessary expense,” says Hennelly. “A few dashes in a Gin & Tonic is the obvious introduction, but it pairs incredibly well with absinthe cocktails or anything shaken and herbaceous.”
- Price: $20
- ABV: 39%