What would cooking be without salt, pepper and spices? Pretty bland, most would agree. Bitters are the flavor secret to the artfully crafted drink, and just like a different spice blend can change a meal, switching one brand or flavor of bitters will change your taste experience. Let’s chat about bitters in the last part of this three-part soda series. (See the first and second parts here.) 

First, bitters may be the easiest way to liven up your beverages. Just a few dashes in a glass of seltzer makes a terrific sugar-free (or nearly sugar-free) soda. Pair bitters with one of the syrups you made from part 1 or 2 of this soda series, and you’ve made a drink no one else has ever tried!

Originally created as medicinal drinks, bitters later became flavorings for food and beverage. Very few brands survived through prohibition in the US, but we are seeing a revival in craft brands today, with flavors ranging from aromatic to Mexican chocolate to blood orange. Most people know the classic Angostura and Peychaud’s brands, and while you should have those in your collection, be on the lookout for others wherever you go. You can find bitters in specialty shops, grocery stores, online and in some liquor stores. Traditionally, bitters have not been classified as alcoholic, as their concentrated and medicinal nature made them a different kind of product. The amount of alcohol provided by bitters is almost negligible (but still not absent).

Each brand has its own recipe blend. Bittering agents, such as cincona bark, dandelion root, gentian and walnut bark, are soaked in an alcoholic base with other herbs and spices for anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Brand variations mean that even two kinds of aromatic-style bitters or citrus bitters can taste very different. Some are alcohol-free and use water or glycerin bases to extract flavor. Some may add a sweetener, such as molasses, to round it out.

While it is certainly possible to make your own bitters, some of the base ingredients can be difficult to source and somewhat expensive, or the amount you’d need for a recipe wouldn’t warrant purchasing even the smallest amount of product. Also, most recipes wind up making around a quart of finished product, which is a lot! If you’d like to try your hand at making bitters, recipes can be found online or in the terrific book Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas by Brad Thomas Parsons.

Here are some fun ways to use bitters and their concentrated flavor:
Milkshakes – Is there anything that doesn’t belong in a milkshake? Try a few dashes of chocolate, peach or spicy chili bitters.
Ketchup – Strange, yes, but a few dashes of aromatic bitters like Angostura in ketchup make a terrific dipping sauce or burger topping. The mix of spice with sweet and just a bit of smoke is great. One of my cocktail colleagues swears by this mix and won’t have a french fry without it.
Glazed mixed nuts – A tablespoon of aromatic bitters in a sugar syrup used to coat mixed nuts makes for a really unique snack.