If you’re looking to up your cocktail-making at home — or need a way to make your mocktails a bit more exciting as we head into the back half of dry January — bitters are a simple way to add more depth of flavor to any drinks you make yourself. “They give you loads of flavor in very little liquid,” explains Nik Hannigan, the global brand educator for Fluère nonalcoholic spirits. “Bitters are the salt and pepper, the pinch of seasoning to your cocktail,” adds Lynette Marrero, a co-founder of the all-female, high-speed bartending competition Speed Rack, who works as the beverage director for New York City–based Llama Inn and Llama San. (As a way to support their employees during the ongoing pandemic, Llama Inn and Llama San have set up a staff fund here). To find the best bitters for a home bar, we spoke to Hannigan, Marrero, and 11 other bartenders about their favorites. The 25 bitters they recommend below include classic aromatic bitters, herbal blends, the Peruvian brand that is a must for pisco sours, and more. We’ve organized their recommendations by flavor profile and lead each category with the products that came most recommended.
Editor’s note: In addition to Llama Inn and Llama San, we’ve noted if other businesses mentioned in this story have set up initiatives to support them amid the coronavirus pandemic. If you want to support service-industry workers who have been impacted by the coronavirus, you can also donate to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which has set up a COVID-19 Crisis Relief Fund, or One Fair Wage, which has set up an Emergency Coronavirus Tipped and Service Worker Support Fund. Or, if you prefer to donate to restaurants directly, our friends over at Grub Street are keeping a running list of ones with individual funds here.
Best aromatic bitters
Aromatic bitters, according to our experts, are the most common and classic bitters you can get. They tend to have notes of spices and bittering herbs and are traditionally added to cocktails like old-fashioneds, pisco sours, and Sazeracs.
Jarek Mountain, a co-owner and the beverage director of Boston’s Yellow Door Taqueria, says, “When it comes to bitters, every mixologist should have two staples: Angostura and Peychaud’s.” Julia Momose, partner and creative director at Chicago-based cocktail bar Kumiko, agrees: “Classic aromatic bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s are staples.” According to Pete Canny, a co-owner of the East Village bars and restaurants The Wild Son, Goodnight Sonny, and The Wayland, Angostura bitters are ideal for making Manhattans or Champagne cocktails. (“If I was caught on a desert island and only allowed one, that would be it,” he says of Angostura.) Peychaud’s bitters, meanwhile, have a lower ABV, a slightly fruitier, sweeter flavor, and are ideal for cocktails like Sazeracs.
Best chocolate bitters
The pros say chocolate bitters tend to work best in cocktails made with dark liquors like rum and can have notes of cacao, chilis, and sometimes coffee.
Best citrus bitters
Citrus bitters distinguish themselves from other fruity bitters (which we’ll get to a bit later) by their bright flavor profiles, which the experts say work well in cocktails ranging from old-fashioneds to margaritas.
Best fruity bitters
In addition to citrus, the pros told us about other fruit-forward bitters with flavors that they say work well in rum cocktails, Prosecco-based drinks, or even martinis.
Best spicy and smoky bitters
If you want to add a touch of smoke, a hint of heat, or some warming spice to more complex cocktails, the experts say a bit these bitters, which can have notes of smoked chili and cardamom, will do the trick.
Best herbal bitters
With flavors from lavender to sage to mint, herbal bitters run the gamut, and the experts say you can add them to just about any cocktail, from martinis to old-fashioneds to Manhattans to twists on a Tom Collins.