A Bartender's Guide to Bitters: 5 Leading Brands

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I remember arguing tooth and nail with a server I worked with seven years ago about whether bitters belonged in a Manhattan. The answer is now better publicized, but I had to grab a stack of cocktail books and prove it then. For the initiate—yes, a Manhattan has bitters. However, the question is no longer whether bitters belong in a Manhattan but what bitters belong in a Manhattan. Several brands have appeared in the last five years, and producers who have been around are adding new flavors.

The maker of that crusty bottle of Angostura that was once the sole legacy of bitters has added Angostura Orange. If you're unhappy with Angostura bitters because they don't actually contain angostura bark—read the label, it's true—then you can choose Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters. Want something with more bite? Add Xocolatl Mole Bitters from The Bitter Truth.

Here are some of the more available lines of bitters, with corresponding notes:

Angostura

Being the most common bottle of bitters behind the bar happens to be a good thing in the case of Angostura. While it lacks the bright spice of other aromatic bitters, it's a workhorse. Sometimes you want to add just enough bitter and aromatic quality—in the case of Angostura, earthy gentian and warm cinnamon notes—without overwhelming the other ingredients. Angostura also produces a nice, spicy, fresh, orange-forward orange bitter.

Peychaud's Bitters

This is the quintessential ingredient for the famous Sazerac cocktail. Apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud created them in the beginning of the 19th century. Bright red and lighter than Angostura, they share a base in gentian root. The combo of Peychaud and Angostura is formidable in such cocktails as the Vieux Carré.

Regan's Orange Bitters No.6

While the field was still barren, cocktail enthusiasts such as myself were emboldened by the arrival of Regan's Bitters with famed bartender Gary Regan (and his beard) gracing the front of the bottle. Spicy and richer in character than most orange bitters, they also offer less sweetness and are a lightning rod in certain cocktails like the Martinez.

The Bitter Truth

The Bitter Truth offers a line of bitters created by German bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck, including the famed Bittermen's bitters. The whole line is worth a look and notably complex, though expensive. The best of the bunch are their Orange, Celery, and Xocolatl Mole Bitters.

Fee Brothers

Fee Brothers have become the most widely available of the more extensive lines but they are definitely a mixed bag. Their Old Fashion Aromatic, Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters, and Peach are not only delightful but bear a thousand uses; flavors such as Mint and Rhubarb are simply the better part of cough medicine. One great thing about Fee Brothers bitters is that they're non-alcoholic, so you can use them in non-alcoholic drinks, a.k.a. "mocktails."

In my next post, I will share my recipe for making your own bitters.

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Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
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