You have probably seen bitters as an ingredient to many different cocktails and avoided it because you either didn't know what it was or how to get it. While it is not the most common ingredient, you will need it for many old-school drinks as well as few new ones as mixologists are learning to play with spirits more to produce new and unique flavors.
Bitters are an alcoholic beverage that is flavored using the essence of herbs and have a very bittersweet flavor. The ingredients of the alcohol will range from gentian (as seen in Angostura bitters – the most common), orange peel and even cassia. Each bitters will be a little unique based upon the herb used and the brand that you purchase.
When you are looking for bitters in a liquor store, it will be a very small bottle, around the same size as you would get for a bottle of Tabasco or Worcestershire sauce. And just like those ingredients, you are using a dash or two at a time to make a cocktail. The bottle will be less expensive than some of the other spirits you buy because it will be so much smaller and because you don't use as much at a time.
The three most common bitters on the market include:
Many recipes will simply call for bitters, though they will occasionally be specific and say Angostura or another kind. If you are only going to keep one kind in your home, make sure it's Angostura and you won't have any problems making as many cocktails as you want.
The use of herbs makes bitters a very popular digestif. It is commonly served straight, chilled, in a small amount at the end of a meal because it will settle the stomach in between courses. Some restaurants will serve brandy or other liqueurs, however this is a very acceptable method as well. It has been used for years simply because of its medicinal properties.
Because of the bitter taste of the alcohol, it is never used more than just a little at a time to just add a hint of extra flavor to a cocktail. Not following the suggestions will result in a perfectly good cocktail ruined because of the taste of the bitters. A Brandy Manhattan can be made by filling a rocks glass with ice. You will then add a teaspoon of Maraschino cherry juice, a teaspoon of Sweet Vermouth and two dashes of bitters. You will then add a shot of Brandy and a splash of water. Stir it up and garnish with a cherry.
Another popular drink is that of the Scotch Old-Fashioned (though you can substitute other alcohols in for the Scotch). Start with an old fashioned glass and place three dashes of bitters, a sugar cube and a teaspoon of water inside. Muddle it together with the back of a spoon and then add in ice and two shots of Scotch. Garnish with a cherry and an orange slice and you have a delicious drink.