bitters and tinctures

Let’s face it: Most popular cocktails are tooth-rottingly sweet. Loaded with juice and sugary liqueurs, the average “girly drink” piques the palate about as much as a stick of gum. Want to cut the sugar and improve your cocktail? Try incorporating bitters.

Bitters are most commonly seen in tiny bottles, but they actually come in many sizes, colors and flavors. The term “bitters” refers to a group of beverages and additives, all made by infusing alcohol with herbal essences, and all with a bitter or bittersweet flavor. The bitters themselves can range from potent brews of angelica root, gentian, bitter orange and even wormwood, to lighter and fruitier drinks that can be quaffed on their own.

Originally brewed up by a Venezuelan doctor, bitters were once sold as patent medicines to cure digestive ailments. In fact, some of the most common ingredients can slightly improve digestion or cure mild nausea. These days, we’ve got heftier stomach meds, and bitters are strictly for flavoring our cocktails. To your health!

Which Bitters to Buy

Any self-respecting bar includes Angostura and Campari, two wildly different bitters. Angostura is the original cocktail bitters, a potent brew that you use by the drop. Campari is considered a digestif. It’s bright red, fruity and drinkable by the glass. For organic cocktail bitters in a range of flavors, try Urban Moonshine.

Cocktails with Bitters

The absolute classic is The Old Fashioned, which may well be the first so-called cocktail. It’s made by muddling sugar with cocktail bitters. Add a little brandy or whiskey and a twist of citrus rind, and you’ve got quite a delicious drink.

Bloody Mary aficionados know that a dash of bitters brings the whole drink together.

For something a little less savory, try a Moscow Mule: In a tall glass with ice cubes, mix two shots of vodka, one shot of fresh lime juice, four dashes of cocktail bitters and enough ginger beer to fill the glass.

Drinking Campari? Try it over ice with grapefruit juice, or dilute it with soda.

And don’t forget, you can make your own bitters. Try this ginger digestif recipe or a herb-infused cocktail.

image: Ron Dollette