All About Bitters

August 16, 2012

Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: The folks at Hella Bitter -- currently featured in Provisions -- tell us all about how to use cocktail bitters.

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What is Bitters, anyway?
Bitters is simply a flavor extract. To oversimplify it, think of bitters the same way you think of vanilla extract. The infusion of aromatic spices, bittering agents (more on what these are later), and sometimes fruit in high-proof neutral grain spirit results in this flavor concentrate. Today, with cocktail culture booming much the way it was before prohibition, there is an enormous selection of bitters out there. Ultimately, bitters is a flavor enhancer for your drinks and your food.

A Bitter History
For a thorough history and some great recipes, we suggest reading the wonderful book Bitters by Brad T. Parsons. To sum it up in a few sentences, bitters in some form or other have been around for hundreds of years. First introduced for their supposed medicinal or digestive properties, doctors would prescribe doses to patients to "cure what ails you." When the Federalist Newspaper The Balance first defined "cocktail" in 1806, bitters were part of the original definition. There were hundreds of kinds in pre-prohibition America, and they were a popular and necessary ingredient in many libations. In the last decade, they've seen a major resurgence and are popular ingredients at most cocktail-forward bar programs.

How do you make bitters?
The process of making bitters is a cold maceration -- ie, you simply soak the ingredients at room temperature -- and requires fruit, spices, herbs, bark, roots, alcohol, and time. As a rule, alcohol with a higherproof is more effective at extracting the flavor of the various ingredients, and recipes take anywhere from 2 weeks to over a month to infuse to a desired flavor. When the maceration is done (which is determined simply by taste) the liquid is strained and filtered, and sugar sometimes added.

To make bitters, start with some items from each category in the list below. Choose selectively and start small. It's very difficult to predict the outcome, so expect a lot of trial and error!

• A nice mason jar
• Booze: High-proof neutral spirit.
• Common Spices: Cinnamon sticks, star anise, allspice berries, cloves, black peppercorns, coriander, caraway, cardomom
• Bittering Agents: Gentian root, angelica root, calamus root, quassia, wormwood

After you have these essentials, play around with adding them in varying amounts along with citrus peels, ginger, or anything else you think might be good. Go wild.

How do you use Bitters?
Incorporating bitters into the way you eat and drink is easy. Start with the basics -- here is a tried-and-true Negroni recipe to get you started. Ultimately, using bitters as an ingredient is all about experimentation. Taste them first. What do they taste like? In what context would they work? What are complimentary and contrasting flavors? Have fun and take risks, the way you already do in the kitchen!

Bitters Spritzer

Just pour a drop or two of bitters into a glass of seltzer and ice for a refreshing drink perfect for any time of day.

Whiskey Old Fashioned


This will work with any bitters: In a rocks glass, soak a sugar cube or teaspoon of sugar in bitters and mash up. Add 2 ounces of your favorite whisky. Stir. Add ice and an orange twist.

You can find more of Hella Bitter's recipes -- including one for Candied Bitter Bacon! -- on FOOD52 here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • taxidog
  • Andy J. Le Blanc
    Andy J. Le Blanc
  • petitbleu
  • mrslarkin
We are pleased to offer a variety of handcrafted goods that raise the bar on your everyday imbibing and culinary experience. All of our products are designed with the utmost care to be premium, user- friendly and appealing to a broad audience. They allow anyone, from an eater skimming millennial to the passionate bartender and home chef, to create delicious cocktails at home with ease.


taxidog November 10, 2015
I love to add a few dashes of Scrappy's cardamom bitters or Fee Bros. black walnut to my hot cocoa. My skeptical sister even loved it.
Andy J. November 22, 2013
Hella thanx, Hella Bitter bitters!
petitbleu August 23, 2012
A good friend taught me how to make bitters, and I've never looked back. My most recent: rhubarb bitters. Awesome article.
mrslarkin August 16, 2012
this is amazingly awesome. Thank you!