1. (n.) A high-proof alcohol infused with herbs, roots and spices. Invented as a medicinal tonic, they were originally meant to aid digestion and cure a variety of ailments, including colds and coughs. Common ingredients include cloves, dried citrus peel, gentian root, quinine and cardamom. By the 18th century, bitters were mixed with spirits in cocktails to make taking them easier, and the public began to consume them recreationally.
Commonly described as a spice or seasoning for cocktails, bitters can add depth and complexity to a drink when used judiciously (usually one or two dashes per drink), and were an essential component of early cocktails. Largely forgotten after Prohibition, save for Angostura and Peychauds, a revival has taken place over the past two decades, bringing bitters back to the forefront. The cocktail craze of the 2000s and farm-to-table movement have acted as fuel to fire, and now it’s possible to find artisan-made selections across the country, as well as in-house versions at many of the best bars and restaurants. Some producers that are widely available and worth seeking out are Scrappy’s, Bitter Truth and Bittermens.
2. Potable bitters are liqueurs and spirits distilled with herbs and spices meant to be consumed in small quantities. In Europe, these strong, bracing drinks are usually consumed after a meal to encourage digestion. Brands to look out for include Underberg, Fernet Branca and Averna. For a more comprehensive discussion, see Amari.