Back to basics

Bitters were the original cocktail ingredient and, with the return to ingredients with provenance, they are reclaiming their space on the back bar. Dominic Roskrow reports


AS CHALLENGES GO, it doesn’t get tougher than this one. Two thousand words on bitters. Two thousand. It’s like standing at one end of an Olympic rowing course and looking down to the finish line, which is a very long way away. After all, writing about bitters is a little like writing about bath plugs or plastic widgets, right?


At least this was my thinking until I had a late-night conversation with a barman called Sean, somewhere in Dublin. It must have been playing on my mind because I had brought this most unlikeliest of topics up in conversation over a pint of Guinness or two.

“Until relatively recently you could have described bitters as the salt and pepper of the drinks world,” he

said. “You don’t actually need them but without them flavours are blander and less inspiring. They work in the background to enhance the flavour of the drink in a way that you don’t really notice them. But you know when they’re not there.

“But their role has changed as the surge in demand for exciting cocktails has grown. They have taken on a more significant position and have become a feature in their own right. They’re more like chilli sauce these days. You know how you get all these different bottles of chilli in the supermarket now? It’s like that. They come in lots of different strengths and styles and serve different purposes.”


Certainly they seem to increasingly be taking centre stage at the back of any self-respecting bar. There is an array of releases battling it out for bar space and the more serious bartenders have taken to making their own.

So what do we mean by bitters? Before you facetiously say “something that is bitter” and sit back with a smug smile on your face, that’s pretty much the right answer.

“According to specifications of the law, it is regulated that if you want to use the spirits category ‘bitter’ you have to have a prominently bitter taste,” says Dr Hubertine Underberg-Ruder president of the board of Underberg AG. “This means products as different as herbal digestives, herbal liqueurs, those type of products used in dashes in cocktails, or even the red coloured ingredients for aperitifs belong in this category.

“For our brand Underberg we even went a step further. The European Community classified this brand as a protected origin, Rheinberger Kräuter. This underlines the herbal (‘kräuter’ is German for ‘herbs) character.”


Stephan Berg of The Bitter Truth expands on the theme. “Bitters traditionally are composed of aromatic oils and essences from fruits, herbs, roots, barks, seeds, etc and an alcoholic base to create a bitter or bittersweet potion,” he says.

“They were originally developed as patent medicines, but now served as digestifs and cocktail flavourings. Bitters provide balance, flavour and complexity to mixed drinks and can be seen as the spice rack for the bar, like salt and pepper for chefs. The use of bitters defined the category of cocktails and bitters are the foundation of the cocktail craft. But the importance is not only from a nostalgic standpoint – drinks with bitters simply taste better than without.”

In essence, then, bitters are the dividing line between Sex on the Beach with a pink umbrella and a sparkler, and a more savoury, mature adult cocktail, so in vogue in style bars across the world.

But the ever increasing focus on bitters-lined alcoholic drinks stems from other trends too – modern consumers seek out natural products, authenticity, provenance, and at least the visage of healthiness. Bitters tick all those boxes.

Turn the clock back and alcohol and herbs were the basis for any number of drinks consumer instead of water, which carried all manner of illnesses and diseases, many of them potentially fatal. It is no coincidence that most drink salutations include references to health and good cheer. And nowhere is the link between healthiness and alcohol more marked than in this area.

“When the first settlers came to America in the 17th century they couldn’t rely on professional medication,” says Berg. “Bitters were considered as medicine not as a beverage.


“At some point bartenders started using bitters in mixed drinks to improve them, since good quality spirits were hardly available in the 18th and 19th century. By adding medicine to booze it also gave people a good excuse for drinking.

“That is why bitters became so popular and the defining ingredient in a drink category called ‘cocktails’.”

Berg adds: “The use of bitters underlined the healthy benefit of the cocktail and added additional flavours and complexity.

“Since water wasn’t as clear as it is today and contained germs and other bacteria, cocktails with bitters were already consumed in the morning to offer some protection from illness.”

But the trend towards bitters has gathered apace, and industry experts are convoked that it will continue.”

And that’s 2,000 words. Wasn’t too bad, was it? Certainly nothing like writing about plastic widgets.



Angostura is one of the oldest contemporary mixers. Formulated around 1824 by a German doctor in Venezuela for stomach illnesses, it found its way to Trinidad and England where it was picked up by the British Royal Navy as a cure for sea sickness and gastric ailments but also, more importantly, for the officer class’s pink gins.

Conclusion: Yes it is.


Jägermeister has become a major player in the party drink and shots market where it is often drunk as a Jägerbomb, where a shot is dropped into an energy drink. For a long time all round the world the brand’s owner focused on not being perceived as a bitters brand. It focuses on young adults and has a programme of sponsored youth-oriented events such as rock concerts. The brand’s main competitors are local shot brands or international shots such as Jack Daniel’s or Jose Cuervo.

It has been very successful in this aim so:

Conclusion: No it isn’t.


Cocktails are classically described as spirits, bitters and a garnish. A Martini is a classic cocktail of gin, vermouth and a garnish. So is vermouth classed as a bitter?

Not necessarily. Bitters are alcoholic infusions of (bitter) herbs. They were originally used for medicinal and digestive purposes as well as cocktail ingredients. The classical description of a cocktail is correct. But it is incorrect to think that the vermouth is the bitters. It would be part of the distilled liquors as one of the spirits. The bitters in a pre-Prohibition Martini would be orange bitters.

Conclusion: No it isn’t.



The official line is as follows: “Campari is an alcoholic spirit obtained from the infusion of bitter herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water. Many have tried to guess the number of ingredients: some say there are 20 or 60, but others list the ingredients at 80. To this day, alcohol and water are the only known ingredients of its special and secret recipe. Its vibrant red colour, intense aroma and distinctive bitter taste make it extremely versatile, and the perfect base for some of the most famous cocktails around the world.” There are other takes. Here’s mixologist Colleen Graham on The Spruce website: “Its prominent flavour is that of a strong bitter orange similar to if you were to drop orange bitters directly on your tongue (though that’s not recommended as it will ‘burn’ your taste buds). It has many uses in cocktails and is used in some of the best recipes of all time. Yet, for those unaccustomed to the taste of Campari-forward drinks such as the popular Negroni, Americano, or Campari and soda, it can be overwhelming.”

Conclusion: It is and it isn’t.


The simple answer is that it isn’t. Luxardo is a liqueur and many of its products, made with fruits such as apricots and maraschino cherries, are at the sweeter end of the scale. That said, Luxardo Amaro Abano is described the quintessential after-dinner cordial, and the company states: “Amaro Abano originated in 1952. Amaro means ‘bitter’. The herbs in this Amaro grow wild in the Euganean Hills and are infused along with cardamom, cinnamon and bitter orange peel.”

Conclusion: It can be.


De Kuyper makes scores of liqueur products and has a long and impressive history of spirits production, including in the areas of gin and genever.

The company takes its drinks-making very seriously, so when it does a bitter it does it properly. De Kuyper Oranjebitter is distilled from bitter oranges, which are known for their huge sour taste, as well as malaga peel and a hint of anise esprit.

Conclusion: Yes it is.



Amaro Montenegro is a clear, amber-coloured bitters that is somewhat sweet with a spicy, citrus taste. Somewhat less bitter than other bitters, its bitter notes come at the end of the taste. It is made from more than 40 herbs and spices from around the world. Some tasters have guessed that its ingredients include vanilla and orange peel. Amaro Montenegro, at 23% abv, can be served as an apertif with soda water. It is made in Zola Predosa, near Bologna (Italy).

Conclusion: Yes it is.


Underberg was first introduced in Germany by Hubert Underberg in 1846. It is filled with mysterious herbs to aid digestion and refresh your spirit after a heavy meal. The exact number and identity of those herbs are still heavily guarded by the Underberg family 165 years after its creation.

The Huffington Post, which loves it, says: “So what does it do? Well, it sets off a bomb in your stomach that frees you from the agony of over-indulging in bratwurst and spätzle

(among other things). We want to be honest and fair with you: your first Underberg is an eye-opening experience. The flavour can be described as intensely herbaceous, a bit liquoricy with the fire of an alcohol fit to be called a digestive aid. It is fire water. But lovely fire water that we happen to seek out whenever we can.”

Conclusion: Oh yes.



“We have seen a growing focus on and importance of herbal spirits,” says Dr Hubertine Underberg-Ruder. “The longing of people to be in a deeper contact with nature again is one driver behind this trend.

“Anything artificial is looked at with sceptism – people want to understand and are interested in nature.

“Today we see growing markets for herbal spirits also in countries that do not have any tradition or cultural roots in these fields. Gin – being distilled from herbs – served as a door opener in some of those markets.

Last but not least, our food – especially some vegetables (thanks to newly bred varietals) that used to taste bitter 20-30 years ago do not taste bitter anymore. But we need a certain amount of this taste. So the herbal spirits are of growing in importance to rebalance our taste buds.”

Stefan Berg at The Bitter Truth agrees. “The past decade has seen tremendous growth in the bitters segment,” he says.

“Twelve years ago, when we started making bitters, there was little to nothing available and there was certainly no excitement about bitters at all. It all accelerated after 2007 when awareness of bitters use has spread and more companies started making them.

“What followed was a kind of avalanche of bitters makers (mainly US based and using food channels for distribution). Meanwhile it has become quite crowded on the shelfs.

“I think it’s fair to say that in 2017 hardly any bar making cocktails has fewer than three types of bitters. More specialised places will hold far more – some stock up to 20 or 30 different types.

“The future will be bright and fantastic. The next generation is hungry and waiting. They will shape new, exciting drinks and they will use bitters as if they have been around for ever, and were never gone.”