Are There Too Many Bitters on the Market?

Memphis Barbeque BittersLate last year, I finally resolved to buy a bottle of bitters that I’d been coveting for months. The flavor was The Bitter End’s Memphis Barbeque Bitters and while I was regularly fantasizing about its ambrosial smokey, spicy qualities, I was hesitant to smack down $23 for a product I’d be using drops at a time.

Sure, I’d spent the same amount on Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters’ Sriracha Bitters. But I wasn’t using it very often. After the initial excitement over such a novel flavor and a few ill-fated experiments, I didn’t use it at all. But I didn’t regret the purchase and I was sure the Memphis Barbeque Bitters from Bitter End would be more practical. I love smoke and I love spice — of course it would be useful.

I found the Barbeque Bitters at Astor Wines & Spirits, at the tasting counter. When I asked for it, the guy behind the counter and I chatted a bit. We sampled a few drops and agreed it was bewitching, but when it came to cocktails the bitters might be used for, neither of us had any ideas. Huh, I thought as I shelled out more than 20 bucks for this two-ounce bottle of chipotle, mustard seed, orange peel, coffee beans, black pepper, allspice, thyme, cumin, bay leaf, and oregano. What do I do with it? This Chipotle Cooler sounded good, and so did The Appalachian. But for some reason I never tried them, instead opting for my own Old Fashioned-based experiments with bourbon, rye, and mezcal, respectively. (They all failed.)

Bitters

So the question is: are there too many bitters on the market to be practical? Are home bartenders lured in by exotic extracts, only to be confounded when it comes to actually using them?

Most bitters seem to be created out of optimistic possibilities rather than necessity. In the end, there are three reasons to buy specific varieties of bitters: Because they’ll be useful (Angostura, Orange, Peychaud’s), because you have a recipe that calls for one, or because they just sound delicious.

Fee Bros Bitters

As cocktail enthusiasts go, I’d guess my collection is about average. My current stock of bitters includes Angostura and Peychaud’s along with a couple bottles made by a friend (a Mexican oregano-driven one and a spiced apple one) and:

Fee Brothers
Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters
West Indian Orange Bitters
Aztec Chocolate Bitters
Rhubarb Bitters
Celery Bitters
Peach Bitters

Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters
Meyer Lemon
Sriracha

The Bitter End
Memphis Barbeque Bitters

Regans’
Regans’ Orange Bitters #6

The Bitter Truth (Travel Set)
Old Time Aromatic Bitters
Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters
Orange Bitters
Celery Bitters
Creole Bitters

The only thing crazier than having a stock of nearly 20 kinds of bitters is how much I actually need a good deal of them. I have three different twists on orange bitters and I use them all. One style of celery bitters is spicy and the other is savory. The chocolate bitters gets used so much I’m thinking I need to branch out and try a couple other styles of chocolate (mostly for Oaxacan Old Fashioneds). And my extended wish list includes a handful of flavors from Bittercube (particularly Cherry Bark Vanilla), Angostura’s Orange Bitters (often twice the price of the traditional Angostura!), Maya Mezcal Bitters from Bitter Tears, a couple types from Bitters, Old Men including Smoke Gets In Your Bitters and Gangsta Lee’n Bacon and Smoked Almond Bitters (wow!).

Travel Bitters

So in conclusion, yes, there are way too many bitters on the market right now. Far more than can possibly be useful to even the most adventurous and active home bartender. I’m sure that we’re close to peak bitters, and that complex cocktails with obscure ingredients will begin to seem, well, too complicated.

And yet in the meantime, I’ll keep buying them for the excitement of possibilities and the hope that I find another classic that becomes an essential ingredient in the perfect cocktail.

My advice: Look for bitters based on your own cocktail needs and think twice about those novelty flavors. Buy variety packs and travel-size bottles when you can — it’s cheaper in the long run. And finally, consider splitting larger bottles of less useful bitters with friends by decanting into multiple smaller bottles.

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22 Responses to Are There Too Many Bitters on the Market?

  1. And I thought I had a lot of bitters, but with only 12 bottles in my collection, I bow to you.

    Next time you are back in Mpls, you should check out Easy & Oskey, make your own bitters kits (http://blogs.mspmag.com/foodiefile/2013/04/the-newest-bitters-maker-in-town-you/).

    I know one of the guys involved and I am very intrigued to check them out, and I am excited they are have a seminar soon.

  2. Wow, such a great idea! How much do they charge? What do you get?

    I’ve wanted to make my own bitters for years but get bogged down in all the required ingredients. Too many expensive things I have to order one at a time in quantities that aren’t useful.

    One day I’m going to go through with my idea for Coca-Cola-flavored bitters. I thought a simple oak and smoke flavor would be cool too.

  3. segmation says:

    Thanks for this nice blog. I will keep this in mind when looking at bitters! Sriracha in a cocktail is a new one to me!

  4. There are too many kinds of everything on the market these days!! Bitters intrigue me. I have no idea what they’re all about… I should experiment with them some day.

    • That’s true, and so much choice can be paralyzing. That’s why, when in doubt, go with what you need first. We home bartenders can go a long way with two bottles: Angostura and some orange bitters.

      As for what bitters are all about, the easiest way to think about them is as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world: they enhance flavors and tie everything together.

  5. Jesse Sachs says:

    Angostura all the way. :)

  6. Jnana Hodson says:

    In our household, a collection of Fee Brothers was one of the best Christmas presents ever. We’ll never do without after that.

  7. Ahhhh finally a post about booze in Freshley Pressed! :D
    Well, I think with bitters it’s kind a like perfumes. You just pick 1, 2 or 3 you really like and use just them. No need to collect them all even as a fanatic bartender. When creating your own cocktails a small amount of bitters should be enough.
    And too many bitters around in general… Guess there’s a market for it right?!
    Cheers!

    • Thanks for the comment! Functionally, I agree with you — I have maybe a half dozen colognes a wear with any frequency (although this summer it’s been down to three) and the rest languish on the shelf or in the closet. But it’s that curiosity that gets me. I’ll see something unique — whether it’s cologne or bitters — and I’ll have to try it. You never know, it could be the next favorite, right?

  8. I asked myself a similar question as I was shopping for a party at La Maison du Whiskey in Paris, prepping for two gin drinks and one– my first– single malt Islay drink, all shaken, all with fresh ingredients. I desperately wanted to buy lavender bitters once I found them but feared I wouldn’t be able to incorporate them successfully. I’ve been planning to create a drink called Lydia’s Hope, named after an airline employee who found my extremely lost bag over the new year, and it finally came to me: Lydia’s Hope = rare + smoke + serene + excitement (read: I got to use the lavender!) It was a big hit, though it took some time to get right. See here for the ingredients: http://angelstarved.wordpress.com/2013/06/29/the-saint-ambroise-summer-cocktail-trot. The point, though, is that it was really the challenge of incorporating a new bitter I loved in theory into a drink others would love in practice. I would have never really found Lydia’s Hope without that ridiculous yearning in the shop!

    So far I’ve limited myself, besides Angostura, to Regan’s Orange, Scrappy’s Lime, and Bob’s Ginger and now Lavender, but I have seem some Jamaica Jerk put to fierce use in cocktail clubs in Paris.

    Thanks for sharing your bitter stories!

    • Great story! The drink sounds interesting, especially combining lavender and Islay scotch. And I think you’ve nailed the challenge: experimenting until you can make something drinkable with something that sounds great in theory.

  9. joyfulrd says:

    I’ve recently started to appreciate the subtle and delightful addition that bitters bring to the mix. There’s a place in Portland called Teardrop that concocts some incredible cocktails with ingredients I’ve a) never heard of and b) would never think go together…but they do. I bet they could find a use for the sriracha and smokey bitters!

  10. When two ounces sets you back over $20, the natural next step seems to house-made bitters. I’m currently enjoying a burnt orange bitters from my best friend in Minneapolis in a maple syrup, bourbon cocktail. Heaven.

  11. FiFi Speaks says:

    Great info, thanks!

  12. ceccotti says:

    As would gaz quote: “Variety is the very spice of life”
    There are too many gin/scotch/rum/… options too, go little as you said and have fun!
    Nice one Harry!
    Saúde!

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