Cocktail Bitters: A road test of some of the key brands you season your cocktails with

Story by Andy Ratcliff,

Bitters are a concentrated infusion of herbs, roots, and spices that were traditionally used as medicines. Today, they play an integral role in the world of cocktails. The roots of alcoholic bitters can be traced back to ancient civilizations where herbal remedies were a staple of medicinal practices. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all had their own versions of herbal concoctions designed to alleviate various ailments. These early herbal remedies often included a mix of botanicals, many of which are still found in modern formulations.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of bitters as a medicinal remedy reached its climax. Pharmacists and physicians often prescribed these elixirs to treat a variety of ailments: from digestive issues to anxiety. The jury is still out on whether they were more effective than Lexapro…but hey, they were probably more fun.

The following are just a handful of the hundreds of bitters on the market today that we tasted.

Angostura Aromatic Bitters
This brand needs no introduction. The original mass-manufactured and most popular brand of bitters was birthed in 1820 by Johann Sigert, a German Doctor who used his medical knowledge to create a tonic that would stimulate the appetite of soldiers and aid their digestion.
The famous yellow-capped bottle is essential for every Old Fashioned cocktail. Don’t be put off by the oversized paper label. This was a manufacturing mistake that the company never corrected because they appreciated it more than the original.
It’s the staple for the entire category and the absolute must-have for your bar and pouring a shot of ‘ango’ for new bartenders on their first shift has been a right of passage since the early noughties. Proximo Spirits

Scrappy’s Cardamom Bitters
Seattle bartender Miles ‘Scrappy’ Thomas created this brand in 2009 out of his love of using local ingredients. There are plenty of interesting options in the range like Lavender and Black Lemon but the Cardamom is by far the best of the portfolio. Proof & Company

Fee Brothers
Family owned since its founding in 1864, Fee Brothers have the most extensive array of products on the marketplace with a whopping twenty two flavors to choose from. The Aztec chocolate and black walnut bitters are the most widely used flavors and they both perfectly compliment an old fashioned or boozy, stirred down drink. Amber Beverages

Mr Bitters
Australia’s first bitters company began in Melbourne in 2014 out of a collaboration between local bartenders and alcohol enthusiasts. They use Australian ingredients sourced locally and have a wide array of interesting flavors to offer punters. Their fig and cinnamon bitters add an interesting take on any stirred drink with dark spirits and their honeyed apricot and smoked hickory offer amazing depth to any drink spiked with agave or gin. Only Bitters

Boudreau’s Cherry Bitters
Jamie Boudreau, the owner and operator of legendary Seattle cocktail bar Canon created the most incredible cherry bitters several years ago but good luck sourcing them unless you’re at the bar in Seattle. I wish I’d brought a bottle home with me. Only Bitters

I rarely see this brand in bars these days but it’s a complex and delicious blend of herbs and botanicals allegedly sourced from 43 different countries. The ingredients are confidential and the closest list I could find explains it as “natural flavors from herbs and roots from the genus Gentiana”. These ingredients are aged in Slavonian oak. The 20ml bottles which come wrapped in a tiny paper bag are not recommended for cocktails but for drinking straight up or over ice. The result can be both intoxicating and dangerous. Hot tip: If you keep the lid cap you can mail it to their office and go into the running to win an array of cool prizes. Only Bitters

Of all the bitters we tasted and tested there is still nothing on the market that can come close to Angostura’s Aromatic bitters. It’s the benchmark of the category and it still holds the depth and complexity that can elevate any cocktail from average to brilliant. Even after almost two hundred years on the market, ‘Ango’ still reigns supreme. Pour me a Trinidad Sour, please!