Labor Day

The Instant (Genius) Way to Make Your Juices & Booze-Free Drinks Better

August 31, 2016

If you're only shaking your bottle of bitters into Manhattans—or you don't own a bottle at all—you're missing out on some of the elixir's most impressive tricks. Let's fix that!

You can apply bitters much more widely than you probably realize, because they aren't the type of ingredient to just beach themselves on top of everything else. Instead, they wriggle in and help existing flavors bloom, much like a subtle jolt of salt or acid or heat can.

So yes, you should be keeping bitters in the kitchen, not just on the bar cart or whichever cabinet you tuck your favorite bottles into. As I've written about before, bitters can—and should—be used in all sorts of unexpected places.

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In this case, that place is a watermelon agua fresca, the given name for the family of quenching, non-alcoholic drinks that you'll often find served along with Mexican cooking. Some aguas frescas you may know include agua de jamaica (hibiscus tea), horchata, and other fruity, floral, or even seedy concoctions (oh-ho-ho—we meet again, chia seed).

For the bright pink version in her new cookbook Modern Potluck, Kristin Donnelly blends up a heap of watermelon, then stirs in lime juice, sugar, and club soda. But she keeps going, adding in more than a few shakes of Angostura bitters: 16 to 20 drops, to be exact.

"I'm always looking for ways to balance out sweetness," she told me. (She also happens to be the co-founder of the natural lip balm company Stewart & Claire, so she has an extra-special understanding of building fragrances.)

"I love bitters so much, I even tried to create a bitters-inspired lip balm," Donnelly said. "It didn't quite work out, but I did manage to create something that's a dead ringer for a Negroni."

I wanted to know if her subtle riff really made a difference, so each time I tested, I tasted a little cup before and after adding the bitters. Every time, the drink became fuller-flavored and more inviting, but in a hard-to-pin-down way. Though the "before" cup was good, it tasted two-dimensional compared to the "after."

Still skeptical? Next time you make a juice or tonic or lemonade, shake some bitters in and have a sip. It won't taste bitter, and it likely won't even taste of bitters. But you will probably like it more.

The day we photographed this recipe, I carefully carried a tray of it around our office for a guessing game on Facebook Live, asking Food52 staffers what they thought might be genius about it.

The results: 1) They all loved it. 2) They did not guess why.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by Linda Xiao

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ty Herron
    Ty Herron
  • Lea Abiodun
    Lea Abiodun
  • hardlikearmour
  • lloreen
  • ksevans13
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Ty H. September 23, 2016
I hate to burst your bubble, but Angostura Bitters have an alcoholic content of 44.7%, almost 90 proof!
ksevans13 July 28, 2021
Yes, my first thought too! But at 4-5 drops per serving, the total amount of alcohol one would get is negligible. I realize that one drop is too much for some strict abstainers, and all respect to that limit—but many others will be fine with this. Cheers!
Lea A. September 3, 2016
I saw this recipe just as I was planning an outdoor lunch with a friend. I've never made agua fresca before, but I'm totally sold now. I'm not sure if I put enough bitters because I don't know if I tasted them. However, it's a wonderful drink and we enjoyed a lot. Thanks for posting the recipe.
hardlikearmour September 1, 2016
Ack! I've been making aqua fresca all summer, and I can't believe I never knew this trick.
Kristen M. September 1, 2016
It's never too late!
lloreen August 31, 2016
I use bitters all the time in non alcoholic drinks. My favorite is sparkling water with the juice of one key lime, a few drops of stevia, and a dash of lavender bitters. Refreshing, low calorie, and no sugar.