In 2010, I was hanging out with bartender John Gertsen at an event in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As the night went on, the pace of the drinking accelerated, as was likely to happen at events such as this one. The idea of taking shots soon materialized, but the bar was only stocked with Crème de Cassis, soda water, and bitters. Not one to become discouraged, John smoothly popped the cap off a 10-oz. bottle of Angostura and began to dole out shots.
My face revealed my skepticism. If it had been a sentence, it would have read “are you shitting me?” But after John downed his glass and poured another, my manhood slapped me in the face and I emptied the inky black medicine down the hatch. It was, surprisingly, delicious. I was hooked.
Sure, most people only need a dash or two of bitters to round out a drink, but bitters junkies are not most people and I’m proud to say I’m one of them. Although most nights a glass of Averna satisfies my cravings, sometimes it takes a little bit more. Sometimes I reach for the Fernet. Other times, I find myself longing to relive that first shot of Angostura.
How to Taste Bitters
The usual advice for tasting bitters goes like this: shake a few dashes into a hefty glass of seltzer water and stir. Another technique: shake a drop or two onto your open palm, rub your hands together, and smell. While both these techniques work, they never captured the full body and well, bitterness, of bitters for me.
Back in 2007, Jamie Boudreau came up with a makeshift recipe for Amer Picon (cleverly named “Amer Boudreau”) that combined the amaro Ramazzotti with orange extract and nearly a full bottle of orange bitters. Reflecting on the recipe, it occurred to me that most potable bitters (fernet, campari) and aromatized spirits (amari, aperitifs, digestifs, and the like) contain the same botanicals found in bitters, only in different concentrations.
I went on a quest to find out which bitters make for the best solo drinking, or how to make them drinkable with a little tweaking. In that process, I decided this is my new favorite way to compare and judge bitters. I apologize if my notes are a little excited at times—I was taking shots all night, after all.
Which Bitters Taste Best?
- Dr. Adam Elmigirab’s: Dandelion & Burdock Bitters | Aphrodite Bitters. These bitters are on a whole different level from anything else I tasted. They are both easily potable straight from the bottle. The dandelion and burdock bitters taste slightly milder and sweeter, while the aphrodite bitters have a chocolate note and finish with a bitter aftertaste. Combining equal parts of these two bitters makes an amazing drink over ice or at room temperature. However, I now know to add more of these bitters to mixed drinks than I would use, say, angostura, due to their milder demeanors.
- Fernet Branca. Delicious as a shot or sipped from a really cute little glass, like Alfred did in Dark Knight Rises.
- Underberg. Anise, clove, cinnamon. Smells sweet, inviting on its own. Slightly woody. A tad too bitter to sip. Tannic. Tastes of caramel and vanilla, once you get past the tannin. But the tannin is pretty strong. If you shoot it, the tannin isn’t as noticeable. Very nice burn in the back of the throat, opens up some citrus notes. Also get some chocolate, distinctly sweet. REALLY good as a shot. Alternatively, see the recipe for “The Rejuvenator” at the end of this chapter.
- Angostura. Delicious on its own. Tingly, refreshing, sweet, astringent. Makes a great shot. However, you might as well save some money and drink fernet instead; it has a similar profile.
- Bittermens Boston Bittahs. This is the only bitters I tested with an interest-ing spicy note that only appeared when I was trying it as a drink rather than as a bitters. 2 parts bitters to 1 part 1:1 simple syrup worked best, but even then the combination was a little syrupy for my tastes. I would recommend adding 1 part dry, light white wine and seeing how that works.
- Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole Chocolate Bitters. Really bitter on their own. Add an equal part of 1:1 simple syrup and 2 drops saline/oz. to create a bitter chocolate liqueur suitable for mixing. This brand tends to make their bitters with a strong aftertaste and not much sugar to offset the bitter flavors. I couldn’t find a good way to make an aperitif-style liqueur worth sipping.
- Regan’s Orange. Too intense on its own to make a good drink, but can be mixed into an amazing aperitif. See recipe, to follow.
- Peychaud’s. Very different from the other bitters tested. It tastes more like an anisette than a traditional bitters. In fact, you can combine 2 parts Peychaud’s with 1 part 1:1 simple syrup to produce a respectable anisette. But, really, no matter how much I tweaked it, Peychaud’s just didn’t taste as interesting to me as a decent absinthe. I guess this makes sense, since absinthe contains many botanicals also found in bitters, but it made me wonder—is there really a point to including both Absinthe and Peychaud’s in a drink like the Sazerac?
- Fee Brothers Orange Bitters. Another informative learning point. These orange bitters taste more like orange extract than a true orange bitters. While they were fresh and orange-y and slightly bitter, no amount of tweaking would have produced an orange aperitif worth drinking from these. This Fee Brothers product is best used to add a citrus note to other components.
Big important lesson learned. Although this experiment started off as an effort to make a fake amaro, it ended up being an education in bitters. Tasting through the different bitters drop by drop made me realize how very different each brand is. This is now my go-to way of tasting a new bottle of bitters and I would highly recommend you try it with any bitters you buy.
I haven’t had time to taste through more brands, but the idea that “2 dashes” is always the right prescription or that Peychaud’s can be substituted for Angostura… it’s pretty clear to me now how ludicrous that is.
Unconventional Recipes w/ Bitters
1 oz. Regan’s Orange Bitters
1 oz. 1:1 Simple Syrup
1 oz. Dry Sherry (or other dry, acidic wine)
3 drops Saturated Saline Solution
Combine ingredients and serve as an aperitif over ice. The acidity of the wine is important, because it provides body that is necessary to complement the citrus high-notes of the orange bitters. Malic or tartaric acid can be used to adjust acidity. I found that the saline solution helped mitigate any bitter aftertaste.
Courtesy John Rutherford, Observational Gastrophysics
1 12-oz. can Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer
8-12 dashes Angostura Bitters
Gently stir to combine. Drink without a hint of irony.
- I like PBR just fine on its own, but adding bitters to it completely changes the flavor profile. The beer gets a huge boost in aroma and complexity.
- I’m also partial to using a whole bottle of Underberg instead of Angostura. It’s freaking delicious, but a little less convenient than simply dashing Angostura.
- John also recommends trying Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters.
Courtesy Mattias Hagglund, Heritage, Richmond, VA
1 whole bottle Underberg Bitters
1/2 oz. Laird’s 7 1/2 yr Apple Brandy
3/4 oz. Local Wildflower Honey Syrup (70:30 honey:water)
3/4 oz. Lemon Juice
2 dashes Angostura
Add ice, shake and double strain into an old fashioned glass. Top with 1 oz. seltzer, and fill with fresh ice. Lemon twist garnish.
- I love that Mattias calls for 2 dashes of Angostura in this recipe. Talk about icing on the cake.
In what weird ways do you use bitters?