The Home Bartender: Cocktail Bitters

We are back for another round with The Home Bartender! This series caters to those of you who are not necessarily working bartenders but who are really interested in drinking better cocktails and learning how to make them! Each month our Home Bartender expert, Matej Novak, will run you through a new topic. This month, what bitters do you need?


 

A great cocktail requires balance. You may like your drinks sweeter (or less sweet) than your neighbour on the next barstool, but an unbalanced cocktail isn’t going to work for anyone. Perhaps the least tangible element of that balance comes from the addition of bitters, that almost-medicinal concoction of herbs and botanicals added to cocktails a drop or a dash at a time. And while there are bitter-less recipes, in general they’re a crucial component of your bar. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Angostura: These aromatic bitters from Trinidad and Tobago (that’s really hard to say on the first try, trust me) are ubiquitous for a reason: They’re great and work with a variety of spirits. Just like a jigger is the first tool I’d recommend, this is what to get if you’re only going to get one.
  • Peychaud’s: One of the key components in a Sazerac — both in flavour and colour — these are actually more versatile than they appear. That said, if you don’t like anise or black liquorice, you can probably skip these in favour of…
  • Orange bitters: Of everything on this list, these are the least brand-specific and most based on personal taste. From the smooth and sweet Angostura Orange to the spiced and complex Regan’s No. 6, these go great with gin — and much more.
  • Mole bitters (bonus round): While other bitters take more of a back seat and help round out a drink, Bittermen’s Xocolatl Mole bitters make themselves known. Deep, rich and chocolatey, they pair best with rum, but they also work well with tequila and rye.

Bitters last a long time, and you only need a few dashes per drink, so one bottle goes a long way (to preserve their vivacity, keep them in the fridge). That also means, however, that unless you’re making a lot of cocktails at home, it’s hard to experiment with different varieties or versions (I don’t exactly regret all the bitters I’ve purchased over the years, but at this rate, I’ll be willing some of them to my children).

Rather than buying one or more large bottles, another great option is to get a travel set or gift pack, like one of these from Bittered Sling. It gives you greater variety and more opportunity to play around, if that’s what you want to do.

For more on all the above, check out the video and let me know in the comments if you have any questions — about bitters or making cocktails at home in general. I’m more than happy to answer them and it means my wife will get a break from hearing me ramble on the topic. Seriously, help us both out.


Matej Novak
Matej is a writer and cocktail enthusiast living in Kingston, Ontario. He’s annoyed bartenders with endless questions in cities including Toronto, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Prague, London and Tokyo. He’s also amassed more cocktail tools and accoutrements than with which he knows what to do (told you he’s a writer). Don’t be like Matej. Learn from his mistakes — and his successes — instead.
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