What Are Bitters?

What are bitters? The name says it all — a bitter liquor that compliments a cocktail or stands on its own as a digestif. And now, they're making a comeback. Today, they are still savored as a unique specialty, infusing drinks with a dash of their culture and region of origin. The many versions of Amaro, for example, are a mainstay of Italian drinking culture — appearing in Italian liquor stores and authentic restaurants alike. Most other European cultures have their own digestif, too. The Underberg version is a holiday tradition in Germany, and Suze is a classic French liquor beloved by bartenders.

These kinds of bitters are potable, which means you can also drink them on their own. Non-potable bitters need to be mixed as part of a cocktail because of their high flavor concentration. The most popular non-potable bitters — Angostura and Peychaud — add depth to cocktails without overpowering other tastes. Angostura is produced on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, and Peychaud hails from Creole New Orleans. The latter is a gentian-based bitter, whose light floral flavor is the backbone of the famous Sazerac cocktail.

An Acquired Taste

Bitters are no doubt an acquired taste, but creative bartenders still manage to turn skeptics on to these elixirs with cocktails that feature their favorite variations of bitter tastes. Lindsay Howard, a wine steward at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, believes bitters are making such a comeback because of bartenders' increasing interest in these products. "Because of the variety of brands and flavors of bitters," she says, "it takes industry professionals' knowledge and passion of products to push consumer interests in this new direction." A properly trained bartender (such as one who has completed wine and beverage courses) can capture the delicacy and unique attributes of bitters with complimentary flavors.

If you want to dip into these flavors for the first time, try cocktails with bitters. Sazeracs, Negronis or Manhattans can open the door to this tasteful world without the bite of a straight amari. They're called digestifs for a reason: They help you burn through your food. Of course, what are bitters if not a way to pack a punch for first-time drinkers, too?

Ask a bartender to make a custom blend for you with some flavors you know you'll like. With the right mix, you may come to relish their potent flavor.

Image source: Flickr