Throughout history, when bartenders made their own bitters, they controlled the flavor profile to suit the drinks they wanted to make. Although some ambitious barkeeps still whip up their own, quite a few take a shortcut: they blend existing bitters brands together.
At some OG craft cocktail bars (Death & Co., Employees Only), this hack pre-dated the proliferation in bitters brands and provided a way to fine-tune without too much fuss. Over time, mixing bitters became common practice, similar to the way many bartenders mix two types of rum or whiskey in the same drink. In his Improved Genever Cocktail, Troy Sidle of ZZ’s Clam Bar includes both Angostura and Peychaud’s, yielding a pleasing spiced-cherry note.
For some, blending bitters provides a way to create a flavor profile that no one brand satisfies. For example, “Feegans’” orange bitters (Fee Brothers + Regans’) became such a popular combo that it’s nearly a brand in its own right. Don Lee has taken the practice further, blending Angostura, Peychaud’s and “Feegans’,” which he dispatches in his beloved bitters-soaked Gimlet variation, the Sawyer.
Some bartenders have taken to mixing bitters with tiny amounts of spirits. For example, Angostura blended with dashes of absinthe has historic roots in tiki lore. “One of Donn the Beachcomber’s secret weapons in his drinks is his great combination of spices,” explains Martin Cate, who employs this mix at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. Yet, where Donn’s original recipe calls for absinthe, Cate uses Herbsaint, taking a tip from New Orleans-based rum enthusiast, Steve Remsberg, who reportedly spotted the two ingredients mixed together in a single dasher bottle when he frequented Chicago’s Don the Beachcomber outpost in the 1960s. Cate dubbed his equal-parts mix “Herbstura.”
Whether dashing double-fisted or mixing different bitters or spirits together in a “cheater bottle” for easy access (as the pros do), here are three key bitters mixes to try. All are equal parts blends, except where specified.
House Peychaud’s Bitters: Peychaud’s + Bitter Truth Creole Bitters
Death & Co., New York
At Death & Co., cherry-accented Peychaud’s Bitters gets amped up with more heat and spice, making it ideal for standing up against robust spirits, such as caraway-flavored aquavit and the honeyed tones of reposado tequila.
Try it in: Enemy Lines
Herbstura: Herbsaint + Angostura
Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco
At tiki haven Smuggler’s Cove, Martin Cate pulls from Don the Beachcomber’s bag of tricks to add subtle anise and spice notes to drinks. Cate prefers 100-proof Herbsaint Original for his mix over the 90-proof version. (While absinthe and Angostura is a common combination seen at a wide range of bars, Employees Only deserves special mention for their house absinthe bitters, which starts with Herbstura-like absinthe and Angostura, but also folds in green Chartreuse and mint bitters for extra-herbaceous complexity.)
House Orange Bitters: Angostura + Regans’ Orange Bitters
The NoMad Bar, New York
In The Nomad Cocktail Book, bar director Leo Robitschek recalls that working closely with the pastry chef team at Eleven Madison Park opened up a world of flavor possibilities beyond purchased products. That was when his team started brandying local cherries and mixing their first house bitters blend. Equal parts Angstura and Regans’ Orange Bitters is their standard blend, but in some recipes (the Martinez, the Bamboo) it’s supplemented with an extra dash of Angostura for more spice.