You've probably noticed that we use bitters in many of our cocktails and may wonder what the heck they are and why we'd bother with such a small amount of an ingredient. After all, when we use bitters, it's typically a few dashes at the most. However, they can add a fun note to a cocktail, alter the flavor slightly and help to balance a drink that's too sweet or too tart. And it's fun to play around with them!
Cocktail bitters aren't the same thing as digestive bitters, which are typically sipped straight up. Campari and Aperol are well-known examples of digestive bitters and, while they make great cocktail ingredients (Negroni, anyone?), are wonderful when enjoyed on their own before or after a meal. You don't want to sip cocktail bitters straight up! That would be a deeply unenjoyable experience!
Originally used as medical tinctures, to oversimplify, cocktail bitters basically consist of roots, barks and herbs infused in an alcoholic base. There are many companies out there now playing with fun flavors, like chocolate and hot pepper, and it's easy to make your own if you don't mind waiting a couple of weeks to use them. You can find lots of recipes by searching on "bitters recipes." Soon you'll start creating your own recipes. I made pineapple and Hess House bitters once and they were fabulous and Paul has made Abbott's bitters. If you don't want to go to the trouble, most supermarkets carry Angostura bitters and many well-stocked liquor stores carry brands like Fee Brothers and Bitter Truth. Gourmet food stores are another good place to check. Pick up a few bottles that sound fun and start experimenting!