Over the past 15 years we’ve witnessed a bitters boom, with aromatic bitters going from the cocktail world’s endangered species list to a category in need of a serious culling.
Back in 1999, when Ryan Maybee, of Kansas City, Missouri’s J. Rieger & Co. distillery and its speakeasy bar, The Hey! Hey! Club, first started tending bar, there were only two major brands available: Angostura and Peychaud’s. “It was nearly impossible to find any orange bitters on the market,” says Maybee. Now, he acknowledges, there are so many brands available that “the window is closing for any new brands or flavors to really have an impact and become a staple behind the bar.”
The consequences of this bitters renewal were already on the horizon over a decade ago as I was writing Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, my book on the subject. In fact, I often think back to a conversation I had with Jim Meehan in 2010 one evening at PDT when he gestured to the dozen-plus bottles of bitters lined up on the bar, and expressed concern about what was to come on the bitters front.
Today, a dozen seems quaint. There are easily over 50 brands producing hundreds of flavors of bitters, with more brands coming to market every year. Variations on the more common aromatic and orange varieties have spawned a spectrum covering every imaginable riff on citrus, spice and vegetal notes. “If you can think of a flavor that you’d like in a bitters, it probably exists,” says Sother Teague, beverage director of Overthrow Hospitality, which includes New York’s bitters-focused bar and retail shop, Amor y Amargo.
In turn, what has been described as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world has transformed into an entire spice rack. This wealth of bitters has created a conundrum for home bartenders: How do you know which bitters are worth buying and which you might want to skip? And which bitters have joined the canon of classics and which will barely be remembered?
To answer the question, I surveyed top bartenders across the country with that very query, and after sorting through their favorites, present a ranked lineup of essential bitters along with a handful of wildcard picks. Ultimately, though, it’s about what you like to drink at home and experimenting with the particular bitters that may enhance or elevate that experience. On my bar cart, you’ll always find Angostura, Peychaud’s, Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 and Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters. But that doesn’t mean I won’t reach back in the collection from time to time to pull out something a bit more esoteric.