It’s the unusually labelled bottle you’ve spotted behind a cocktail bar and the ingredient you’ve probably drunk on numerous occasions without even realising – yes, we’re talking about bitters. There are hundreds of brands and flavours of bitters to choose from, but the key is knowing what they’re for and when to use them. Here’s the ‘bitter’ truth behind this cocktail addition.
What are bitters?
As their old-fashioned label suggests, bitters were originally used for medicinal purposes to encourage natural healing. Bitters are an alcoholic spirit infused with plant matter such as lemongrass, herbs, bark, roots and leaves – otherwise collectively known as botanical extracts. The result is a small dose of liquid that is strong tasting, with a rich aroma and high alcohol content, in other words, you do NOT want to drink these straight! This form of bitters can sometimes be confused with Campari and Aperol. It’s important to note that these liqueurs are of far lower alcohol and are added to cocktails for different reasons.
How are they useful?
As the saying goes, the best things do come in small packages. Because of their high alcohol content and strong taste, a little goes a very long way with bitters. Typically a drop or two of liquid is added to cocktails to enhance the overall aroma and to fuse ingredients together that may not otherwise complement each other. As cocktails are often either sweet or sour on the flavour spectrum, bitters play their part by balancing everything out and adding a certain complexity to many of our favourite cocktails. With an array of flavours to choose from, bitters can be added to cocktails during any season.
Top Australian bitters brands
You may have spotted ‘Angostura bitters’ mentioned in a cocktail recipe at some point, and while the brand is universally recognised, there are now several bitters brands at home and abroad that entering our cocktail glasses. Here are some of the top ones we love.
Fee Brother Bitters
Born out of Rochester NY, Fee Brothers are now a fifth (!) generation drinks company. That means they now have over 150 years of experience in perfecting the art of drink making! They specialize in cocktail mixes, cordial syrups and bitters. With that much experience under their belt, it’s no surprise that they’ve now perfected almost twenty different flavours of bitters. Cranberry, rhubarb, cardamom, toasted almond and black walnut are just some of the weird and wonderful flavours these guys produce!
The word ‘apothecary’ always makes us think of unique and mysterious potions being made, and that’s exactly how Peychaud’s bitters came about. Way back in 1832, Antoine Peychaud began experimenting with bitters in his apothecary in New Orleans’ French Quater. In our opinion, the story can’t get much cooler than that. Antoine’s recipe was originally intended to put a little kick into the elixirs he sold at the pharmacy – now they put a little kick into our cocktail glasses instead! Its cherry, nutmeg and clove flavour is perfect in a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned.
One of the most well-known bitters brands, this is a name or bottle that may look familiar to you. Their founder Dr Johann Siegert was the pioneer of making bitters. Similar to Peychaud’s, the drink was born from a medical background, originally created to soothe stomach ailments. Today, angostura is a household name in the bar industry and is a staple for seasoned bartenders and emerging cocktail makers alike.
Australian Bitters company
The company’s mantra is all about making the finest bitters for the finest cocktails. Handmade in Australia, their process for making bitters and their ‘secret recipe’ is what sets Australian Bitters Company apart. Using a selection of handpicked botanical herbs and spices, each creative combination adds a unique twist to our favourite cocktails. Aromatic, orange, grapefruit and barrel spice are the perfect flavours from this brand – more on this below.
Types of cocktail bitters
Used to decrease the harshness of some strong tasting alcohol, and to balance out acidity levels, there are bonus points for this one as it also aids digestion! So next time you have a big meal, opt for an after-dinner Manhattan or Old-fashioned which commonly contain aromatic bitters!
Known by Agnostura as being “the soul of an exceptional dry martini”, this zesty blend of tropical orange and spice can elevate the complexity of a variety of cocktails using vodka, rum, and whiskey and gin.
Chocolate and alcohol? Now this one has our attention! Two of our favourite vices are combined in this version of bitters. This is the perfect cocoa addition to sweet vermouth or aged spirits such as tequila, rum and whiskey. Try making a ‘Cocoa Old Fashioned’ with this one and you will not be disappointed!
Although perfect for a Manhattan or a Whiskey Sour, this edition adds a spicy wow factor to almost any cocktail! With notes of clove, cardamom and black pepper, the result is strong and pungent yet balanced with the addition of French Oak.
Ready to get the cocktail shaker out? Shop bitters and more sessions liquor at or pop in store at Sandringham or Brunswick where the Sessions Liquor team can guide you through their selection of bitters.
Passionate Writer, Blogger and Amazon Affiliate Expert since 2014.