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A Beginner's Guide to Bitters

A Beginner's Guide to Bitters

UPDATED: July 11, 2024 // PUBLISHED: December 9, 2021


You know our whisky. You know our vodka. You may have frequented our gin, dessert liquors, and butter tarts. With so much going on, it's entirely possible our bitters have slipped underneath your radar. It’s also possible you’ve never had a friendly disembodied voice to let you know what’s what. So allow me to be your guide to the wide world of bitters—a bartender’s most versatile tool.


This definition (spirits, sugar, water, and bitters) is often cited as one of the first uses of the word “cocktail."


One would think the 2000s "bitters boom" and the essential role bitters play at any bar would be enough to shoot them into the limelight, but no dice: bitters remain drastically underutilized in at-home bars. It's hard to say whether it's because bitters have been unnecessarily complicated in recent years or simply take a backseat to flashier spirits and liqueurs; either way, it’s not due to any secret technique on the bitters’ part. Bitters are most accurately defined, as many brands have already discovered, is “liquid spice” since, like salt or pepper, they are not added for their own tastes, but for how they can elevate and tie together flavours already present in the drink or dish.

In rare cases, bitters are used as bases rather than as modifiers, but these cocktails are usually created with the intention of showcasing a particular bitters, some of which have been staples of the industry for centuries. For example, Angostura Aromatic bitters—one of the most established and popular bitters—is approaching its 200th anniversary since its creation back in the early 19th Century.


Their oversized label was originally the result of a misprint but later became a marketing boon.


The History of Bitters

Bitters started as medicine. The creator of Angostura Aromatic bitters, Dr Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, was originally looking to create a multi-purpose cure for a variety of ailments, but around 1824 founded instead a legacy that would long outlast him.

When the Prohibition started in 1920, bitters were added to cheap booze everywhere to make it more palatable. Some bitters operations circumvented the Prohibition laws by acquiring medical licenses for their alcoholic products, but bitters were only truly popularized after the Prohibition Act was abolished in 1933.

“Not all bitters are created equal, and some are barely bitter at all. Bitters do not necessarily always taste bitter but are categorized as such due to the tannin levels of their ingredients. Tannins are bitter chemical compounds present in many natural ingredients. Though often talked about in the context of wine, they are present in lots of things, including bitters.

Now that we've finished the history lesson, let’s get to the meat of the matter: what are bitters and how are they used?


What are Bitters?

Bitters, since they began as medicinal products, often highlight the natural remedial properties of the herbs, roots, and bark they feature; bitters of this kind are categorized as Digestive bitters if the remedial properties aid with digestion (no, really). There are also Orange/Citrus bitters, which often use orange peel to create a fresh citrus taste. Aromatic bitters, whose main appeal is their aroma are made using aromatic botanicals such as cinnamon, mint, lemongrass, and sage. However, the parameters of bitters are only limited to their fanatics’ enthusiasts’ imaginations, and variations of those classic categories are now numerous and diverse: some examples include Nut bitters, which feature cacao or coffee flavours; Floral bitters, which feature light, airy flavours like lavender or rose; Fruity bitters, which feature fruits like peach, blueberry or grapefruit; and many more.

Freshly Picked Orange BittersArtfully Blended Aromatic BittersEvergreen Bitters
Top Shelf offers classic bitters like our Just-Picked Orange Bitters and Artfully Blended Aromatic Bitters, or bold, experimental flavours like our Evergreen Bitters.


Bitters are created through a process called “maceration,” which involves soaking or steeping raw botanicals with the intent of drawing out their natural flavours and properties in essence. The process involves a neutral, high-proof alcohol, bittering ingredients (like gentian root or cinchona bark—bitters without some of these ingredients will obviously provide a less bitter flavour or even a sweetness!), and flavourings, which are often what set one bitters apart from another. Top Shelf always uses a high-quality, neutral alcohol for the solvent during the maceration process for a higher extraction force, bringing out both the strong and the subtle flavours from the botanicals.

Although most bitters land somewhere in the 35–45% ABV range, they are only intended to be used a few drops at a time, which means they are sometimes marketed as non-alcoholic, though there are also truly non-alcoholic bitters that are created without high-proof alcohol.


How to Use Bitters: Cocktailing and Cooking

Now, how to use ‘em. Bitters pack a big punch in a small bottle, just like any other essential oil or extract—a few drops go a long way. For this reason, bitters are often measured in “dashes” rather than in ounces (oz), but most of the time, we recommend following your heart and adding as much or as little as suits your personal tastes.

When it comes to cooking, it is widely accepted that there are five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (a complex savoury taste). Covering several or all of these bases will enhance the flavour of any dish. Evidently, the same logic can be extended to cocktailing. In that vein, not just any old bitters will suit every cocktail—they must complement the base spirit as well as any other modifiers present in the cocktail. There are two common ways to taste your bitters before starting to experiment with them:

Back of hand: put 1–2 drops on the back side of your hand. Give it a smell to analyse the aroma. Then give it a taste test!
Add to sparkling water: Add a few drops of bitters to sparkling water for a delicious, light drink that gives you the profile of the bitters.

Mixing bitters with soda water is also a great way to enjoy cocktail bitters, getting the most of their unadulterated taste with the texturally pleasing sensation of the fizz. KegWorks also has a great article about ways to elevate your bits & bubs, which you can read here.

Bitters are particularly effective in two-ingredient cocktails like the Old Fashioned. Discover our take on the classic and more with our recipes below:

Apart from their flavours, the beauty of bitters truly lies in their versatility. Natural bitters are great remedies and can reduce stress, and Digestive bitters can resolve stomach ailments. They are also great in cooking and baking! Many traditional recipes call for bitters and have done so for decades—flavoured whip cream, cookie dough... Mix and match flavour combinations to see what comes of it—bitters can make you feel like a mad scientist in your own home, so remember to have fun and embrace it!


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