Gastronaut: How to Make Bitters

Infused with herbs and roots, bitters add depth and balance to cocktails. Here, the three most important styles.

"People say bitters are the salt and pepper of the bar, but really, they're like the spice rack," says Brad Thomas Parsons about one of the most essential, and misunderstood, cocktail ingredients. In his book Bitters, he examines the intensely flavored concoctions and how they're made (usually from high-proof alcohol infused with fruits, spices, roots and barks like gentian and cinchona).

Sometimes still marketed as digestive aids, bitters were once sold as patent medicines; they later became a key ingredient in classic drinks like the Manhattan and the old-fashioned. Today's craft-cocktail enthusiasts are resurrecting 100-year-old "lost" bitters recipes and creating out-there new flavors, such as Mexican mole.

To understand how bitters can enhance a drink, Parsons suggests mixing a Manhattan with and without them: "One will be beautiful, and the other will be overly sweet and cloying." Here, he shares recipes for bitters, inspired by what he calls "the holy trinity"—Angostura (woodsy and spiced), Peychaud's (anise-scented) and orange—along with recipes for cocktails and dishes that use them.

Bitters Ingredients Glossary

All are sold at

Bitters: Sarsaparilla
Sarsaparilla A vine with the flavor of root beer.
Bitters: Cassia
Cassia Chips Cinnamon-flavored bark from Asia.
Bitters: Devil's Root
Devil's Club Root Has a deeply woodsy scent.
Bitters: Black Walnut Leaf
Black Walnut Leaf A tannic, mildly bitter ingredient.
Bitters: Gentian Root
Gentian Root From a mountain plant; very bitter.
Wild Cherry Bark Has a slight cherry-fruit aroma.
Bitters: Cinchona Bark
Cinchona Bark The natural source of anti-malarial quinine.

Photos © Johnny Valiant, JohnnYogesh S More / PHOTOLIBRARY (cassia chips).

Where to Buy Bitters

Cocktail Kingdom

Among the 50 different bitters at this online-only vendor is a proprietary wormwood flavor; also look for barware like the elegant bitters bottle above.

The Boston Shaker

This Boston-based store has about a dozen different types of specialty bitters, plus everything from eyedropper bitters dispensers to ice crushers.

Bar Keeper

Located in Los Angeles's Silver Lake area, Bar Keeper has a bitters bar for shoppers who want to try before they buy.

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