Bitter is Better: Why Bitters for Cocktails Are on Everyone’s Lips

July 19, 2022 by The Mixer Team

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Long relegated to the background, bitters for drinks are finally returning to the forefront. In fact, consumers are rediscovering and learning to appreciate this flavor again, thanks to the increasing popularity of a flagship cocktail that appeared in the early 2010s in France: Apérol Spritz. 

What is bitterness? 

Two people enjoying a campari with olives


When we talk about bitterness, we naturally turn more easily to certain countries such as Italy. Bitterness is part of the local culture. In this country, which has experienced several periods of famine, herbs, vegetables, and fruits with a powerful flavor have been part of the taste heritage. The Italian fondness for bitterness is found in coffee, bergamot, artichoke, dark chocolate, beer, and in two iconic Italian bitters for cocktails: Campariand Aperol!  

What are cocktail bitters? 


Whiskey poured in front of whiskey barrels

Until the 18th century, people used bitters for drinks as natural herbs to treat conditions such as stomach pain and seasickness. Today, bitters is found in several alcohols: quinine-based aperitifs, but also spirits aged in new wooden barrels such as bourbon or cognac.  

Vermouth also has bitterness, provided by phenolic compounds (mainly catechin and epicatechin) present in stems, skins and grape seeds.  

How to drink bitters for cocktails 

Bitter Collins poured into a highball glass

In a cocktail, there are two ways to bring bitterness to your drinks: “ready-to-drink Bitters” and “concentrated Bitters”. 

Ready-to-drink bitters  

Ready-to-drink bitters can both be used as an ingredient in a cocktail and also be enjoyed plain on ice before or after a meal, with aperitif or digestive virtue. This is, for example, Campari. 

Concentrated bitters 

Winter Manhattan with lemon twist in tumbler

This type of bitters is much more concentrated, with a very strong bitter flavor. Concentrated bitters for cocktails are the main ingredients in drinks such as the famous Manhattan and Sazerac. They are very versatile and there are many varieties with different aromatic profiles (aromatics, citrus fruits, herbs, nuts…). 

Why use bitters in a cocktail?  

For two main reasons: to balance a cocktail, or complicate it (in a good way). 

Bitters to balance a cocktail

Balance is one of the terms that bartenders and cooks regularly use to define the ideal tension between different tastes. For example, acidity and sweetness are directly opposed. When sugar dominates acidity, cocktails can be perceived as disgusting and heavy.  

Conversely, drinks that are too sour can be unpleasant. But it is also possible to counterbalance the sugar of a cocktail via bitterness. And if your cocktail is too bitter, it is possible to rebalance it via salty, with a saline solution for example. 

Bitters to complicate a cocktail

Jungle bird cocktail with a jigger

Adding bitterness to a cocktail does not necessarily mean that it will have a strong bitter flavor. Bitters make it possible to highlight other flavors and give the drink more depth. 

 For example, in the Jungle Bird, a tiki cocktail, the addition of a bitter brings complexity to the recipe: 

  • 1 ½ oz of Rum 
  • ¾ oz of Campari 
  • 1 ½ oz of pineapple juice 
  • ½ oz of lime juice 
  • ½ oz of simple syrup 


Bitters are small bottles of spirits infused with herbs and spices to give flavour and complexity to cocktails. The main types of bitters are Angostura, Peychaud Bitters and orange bitters. Aromatic bitters are the most popular bitters for cocktails and they have a bitter and spicy flavor, with hints of clove and cinnamon. Peychaud bitters are mostly known for being included in the Sazerac, New Orleans' drink, and have a sweeter flavor profile compared to aromatic bitters. Last but not least, orange bitters are made from orange peel and have a distinctive citrusy flavour.

Bitters are to cocktails what salt is to food: they improve and align flavors, giving depth and accentuating the core elements of cocktails, whilst bringing their own flavors.

Bitters have been used in cocktails for decades! The best (and most popular) cocktails with bitters are: Negroni, Old Fashioned, Aperol Spritz, Sazerac, Manhattan just to name a few.

Bartenders commonly use orange bitters in whiskey and rye cocktails, especially because these spirits tend to have an orange hint in their flavor profile, that is enhanced by the bitters.


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