Wooden table with herbs on righthand side (photo by iStock)
Food + Drink

How to Use Bitters in Your At-Home Cocktails

Mixologists know making cocktails is an art, a science and even a bit of magic. One must-have ingredient is bitters as just a drop can add complex flavors and transform the taste of your drink.

Stored in small bottles, often with oversized antique-looking labels, bitters are a neutral alcohol infused with botanicals. Per their name, they usually contain one “bittering agent,” most often gentian root, an herb grown in the pastures of the Himalayas and the Alps. The unique combination of herbs, spices, citrus and other botanicals are what gives the lasting flavor.

Angostura bitters are a bar staple. Dating back to the early 1800s, the potent formula was invented by Dr. Johann Siegert of Angostura, Venezuela, and first used medicinally to treat upset stomachs. When the doctor’s family migrated to Trinidad, they began experimenting with using the mixture in food and drinks. Today, most of us will recognize the bitter and spicy notes of clove and cinnamon in the sharp taste of the classic old fashioned cocktail. 

Less is more when it comes to bitters, as most recipes call for just a dash. Angostura really shines as the leading flavor in The House of Angostura’s signature drink, The Bitter Half.
Try their recipe below.

Despite the name, bitters need not be, well, bitter. Orange bitters add a citrusy flavor to dry martinis. Cocoa bitters can add richness to espresso martinis. Lavender bitters add a floral aroma and subdued elegant taste to simple cocktails like a gin and tonic.

The intense flavor of bitters can make them seem intimidating, but if you use spices in your cooking, you can absolutely learn to use bitters in your mixology. Start with small amounts and play around with combinations to find what satisfies your taste buds. You might be surprised how simple it is to elevate your cocktails.

You can even make your own bitters. Grab a glass jar, a cheesecloth, a high-proof spirit like vodka and a selection of roots, herbs and spices of your choosing. For the bittering agent, start with gentian or cassia chips — note: you may need to order this component online. Then, raid your garden or spice rack — star anise, peppercorns, cardamom, clove, ginger, orange — feel free to get creative! Once you’ve chosen your flavors, add those plus the spirit to the jar and seal. Let the mixture steep for two weeks and shake it daily. Then, strain the spirit using the cheesecloth into a new jar and let it steep again. Lastly, strain once more then add simple syrup to take a bit of the edge off. Bottle and add to your home bar.

The Bitter Half
Recipe courtesy of Angostura

¾ oz. Angostura 5 yr old
1 oz. Amaro di Angostura
2 dashes simple syrup
Aromatic bitters
1 small egg white
½ oz. lime juice
1 bay leaf
Freshly grated nutmeg

Add all ingredients into a mixing tin and shake vigorously without ice to emulsify egg. Add ice and shake vigorously again. Double-strain into a pre-chilled glass.

Proof Magazine is for Ohio spirit lovers. It is produced by Great Lakes Publishing three times a year. Don’t miss an issue by subscribing to Ohio Magazine. View a digital version of the Proof Magazine Spring 2024 edition here.