Cocktail bitters: the small but mighty ingredient

13 April, 2023

They may only be needed in tiny drops, but bitters are a crucial element for many cocktails. Eleanor Yates looks at how the market is growing post-covid.

Often the smallest bottles on a bar, and poured in the smallest quantities, cocktail bitters don’t let that stop them from standing out in a cocktail. Available in a vast variety of styles, from chocolate to grapefruit, and used to create balance while adding a burst of flavour, they are generally described as the equivalent of salt and pepper in cooking. One brand which dominates the category is Trinidadian brand Angostura, which continues to prove its popularity, ranking bestselling and top trending cocktail bitters brand in the Drinks International Brands Report 2023. Sophie Charles-Barber, Angostura executive marketing manager, says that “good cocktail bitters should be versatile, able to enhance a range of different drinks and add flavour and balance to anything”.

Bitters have been around for a long time, and with Angostura celebrating its 200th anniversary next year, it’s safe to say they are a seasoned pro – no pun intended – in the bitters category. However, over the years many other brands have come to the fore, such as The Bitter Truth. It was founded in 2006 by two German bartenders from Munich, Alexander Hauck and Stephan Berg, who says they “shared a love for classic cocktails and a passion for lost cocktail ingredients”, and so decided to create the brand, which most recently ranked as second top trending and third bestselling cocktail bitters brand in the DI Brands Report.

“Cocktail bitters are the defining ingredient for a drink to be called a cocktail,” says Berg, and he’s not wrong. On 13 May 1806, an edition of The Balance & Columbian Repository (Hudson, NY) published a letter from a reader who was confused by the new term ‘cocktail’, which had only come about a few years prior. They requested an explanation from the editor, who responded by defining a cocktail as: “A stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. It is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.” Berg goes on to add that, “without cocktail bitters, a drink is not a cocktail, but a mixed drink,” and that bitters add “balance, complexity and flavour to your drinks.” Berg also notes: “Bitters should not take the leading role in a cocktail, it should fade away once the cocktail has been consumed and not linger on your tongue or affect the consumer’s follow up drink. Bitters are kind of a magical ingredient that can turn an average cocktail into a great one.”

Going back to that term ‘bittered sling’, it was the inspiration for a Canadian brand co-founded by chef Jonathan Chovancek and bartender and sommelier Lauren Mote. Bittered Sling “celebrates what beautiful ingredients can provide the palate, plate, and potion, and is represented as the first internationally distributed Canadian bitters line”, says Chovancek.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.