The long fence of tiny bottles between you and the bartender at your favorite cocktail spot can be intimidating. Most imbibers know the basics of bitters—the potent infusions of herbal elements and flavor extracts—but for those who aren’t regularly making cocktails for themselves, there’s still a lot of confusion about them. Thankfully, using bitters doesn’t take a degree in cocktail wizardry. With a little reframing, they can be as easy to use as salt and pepper.
The history of these additives is as deep a rabbit hole as any in libation history. Bittering botanicals have been used for centuries with medicinal intent—they were billed as an aid for digestive ailments and also recommended to combat many other maladies including “nervous disease and hysteria.” The medicine eventually drifted into recreational tipples, so much so that bitters were an integral ingredient of the first-ever recorded definition of the cocktail, published May 13, 1806, in “The Balance and Columbian Repository”: “Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters…”
If you think of cocktails as alcohol soup, bitters are the liquid spice rack. Bitters do to cocktails what dry spices do to food: add missing flavors, increase depth and complexity, and act as a bridge to tie everything together—a little dash of the right stuff makes every flavor shine a bit brighter. (Contrary to traditional Minnesotan cuisine, seasonings beyond salt do, in fact, exist.)
The white-labeled, yellow-capped bottle you’ll see in every bar and liquor store is a brand of aromatic bitters called Angostura Bitters. This is the salt of the cocktail world and can be used just as generously—aromatic bitters are designed to smooth out harsh flavors, accentuate deeper tones, and transform everything in a cocktail into the best version of itself.
The pepper of our liquid spice rack is a well-made orange bitters. Like pepper, orange bitters are great at pairing with lighter flavors and working as a contrast to other ingredients in small amounts. Similar to the variety of peppercorns (white, black, pink, etc.), orange bitters can also provide a variety of citrus flavor. Dashfire Bitters makes both a light, citrusy orange bitters and a deeper, round Vintage Orange option. Bittercube’s version has layered notes of toasted spice.
After mastering the two staples, there are thousands of single-flavor and flavor-combo bitters available for experimentation. Dashfire Cardamom is great for seasoning winter drinks, botanical beverages benefit from the more floral aromatics of Dashfire Lavender, and tropical-escape cocktails get even more exotic when topped off with Bittermens Xocolatl Mole.
The original cocktail formula eventually became known as The Old Fashioned, and its recipe outline is the perfect “starter dish” to test out different liquid spices: two ounces of any spirit, a quarter ounce of simple or flavored syrup (or 1½ teaspoons of granulated sugar), and two dashes of complementary flavored bitters.
Coffee & Kings
2 ounces Copper & Kings
American Craft Brandy
¼ ounce coffee syrup (equal parts hot coffee and sugar)
2 dashes Dashfire Vintage Orange bitters