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What Are Bitters? – Everything You Need to Know About Them

If you’ve ever ventured inside a cocktail bar, I am sure you have noticed shelves lined with a multitude of obscure looking alcoholic beverages along with the ever-versatile bitters.

Even though you love ordering different cocktails with bitters in them, you probably don’t even know what bitters are. 

So, what are bitters and how are they used? Read on to find out everything you need to know about bitters.

What Are Bitters?

Simply put, bitters are highly aromatic, flavored botanical extracts.

They are made from infusing seeds, fruits, herbs, bark, flowers, and roots into a flavorless alcohol base.

They are incredibly concentrated due to the usage of high proof alcohol, which is why you only need to add a few drops to add innumerable strong flavors to your mixed drinks. 

They provide a complex and layered blend of flavors to aged liquors and cocktails.

However, people don’t generally have them straight as they can taste too overpowering and unpleasant on their own!

So, we recommend you to have them in your alcoholic drinks only. With that said, there are some portable bitters that you are meant to have as is, such as the Italian amari

The biggest cocktail bitters category is aromatic bitters, and the most well-known of them all is the bitters angostura.

Aromatic bitters provide balanced flavors of herbs, barks, and spices to cocktail drinks.

Citrus bitters are also pretty common.

For instance, orange bitters are readily used in Gin Martinis. There are also nut (coffee and chocolate) and herbal (tarragon) bitters.

How Are Bitters Used?

Think of bitters as the spice rack of the cocktail realm. You simply add a drop or two to a cocktail drink to add some depth and flavor to it.

In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that bitters are what make a cocktail a cocktail instead of just any other alcoholic drink. 

Bitters are an essential part of every good cocktail bar. They add an interesting blend of flavors to even the simplest of drinks, such as a vodka tonic.

They also add complexity to traditional drinks such as the Manhattan and old-fashioned. Both these drinks have the perfect blend of the angostura bitters. 

Interestingly, in the old days, bitters were traditionally used as digestive aids.

The most iconic bitters, Angostura and Peychaud, were originally developed as medicinal tonics.

Today, people add bitters to drinks to enhance and accentuate the already-present tastes such as sweetness and sourness, which gives your drinks a wide depth of flavors.

Do Bitters Go Bad?

Bitters generally don’t go bad. This is because they have a high alcohol content, which allows them to have a long shelf life, similar to any spirit.

However, like all alcoholic beverages, evaporation and chemical reactions will eventually alter the taste of bitters.

This will only happen if you have the same bottle for over a decade.

Even though the taste will change somewhat, it doesn’t mean that the bitters have gone bad and you can still use them in your drinks. 

However, fruit bitters can go bad after some time. They are often made with glycerin instead of alcohol and glycerin has a shelf life of only a year or two.

So, before you use fruit bitters that you have had for some time, make sure to give them a whiff to ensure that they are good to use.

How to Store Bitters

Since bitters have high alcohol content, you don’t need to store them in a refrigerator to keep them from spoiling.

You can simply keep your bottles of bitters on your kitchen or store shelves and use them whenever you crave a cocktail. 

However, if you have fruit bitters, make sure to refrigerate the bottle after opening it.

This is because they are infused in glycerin instead of alcohol, which means that they have a shelf life similar to glycerin – up to a year or two.  

Do Bitters Have Alcohol?

As I have detailed above, bitters are steeped in alcoholic drinks such as whiskeys for a significant amount of time. The alcohol typically used to make bitters has an AVB of 40 to 50%.

The alcohol helps to prolong the shelf life of the bitters since it is an incredible preservative.

It also acts as the perfect infusing solution; it extracts as much flavor and aroma as possible from the botanicals.

With that said, you can also buy non-alcoholic bitters that are made with glycerin, a nonalcoholic spirit, or liquid sugar.

The Bottom Line

Bitters are strong botanical extracts infused in alcohol and water. They are added to cocktail drinks such as the old-fashioned to enhance their flavors.

Bitters have an infinite shelf life, just like alcohol, except for some fruit bitters that are infused in glycerin.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article on what are bitters and how to use them.

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