A Brief History of Bitters

Pete Capella
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The current cocktail renaissance has brought along with it a reemergence of classic ingredients. We commonly see bartenders foaming egg whites and creating their own ginger syrups. In the first written mention of a cocktail, it was defined as “composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters…” But bitters has been around far before its incorporation into the world of cocktailia. The history of bitters is an extremely interesting one, as most recipes were, and still are, kept a secret amongst its makers.

There are two different types of bitters- potable and non-potable. When we refer to non-potable bitters we are talking about liqueurs meant to be enjoyed on their own, like Campari or Fernet Branca. These bitter style liqueurs have been around since the mid-1800’s and are still just as popular today. We will be focusing more on the non-potable type of bitters; meant to be enjoyed as additives to your cocktail recipes.

Bitters’ story begins in the 1700s when “doctors” would mix up elixirs said to cure common digestive and circulatory ailments. These concoctions were made by preserving herbs and spices in alcohol. These “cure-alls” often times were a bit hard to stomach, so by the early 1800s people began to mix in a bit of liquor to help the medicine go down. Thus the cocktail was born, and bitters became a staple behind the bar. Popular brands like Angostura, first created in the town of Angostura, Venezuela (now called Ciudad Bolivar) by a Surgeon General in the Venezuelan Army or Peychaud’s, created in an apothecary in New Orleans, began in the mid 1800s as medicines, but found their true worth in the world of cocktailia.

Recently, a deluge of fantastic bitters has emerged with the popularity of pre-prohibition cocktails. Small batch bitters companies have popped up all across the United States, and their products are not only of incredible quality, but easily accessible in both higher end liquor stores and online.

Here are a few of The Savory’s favorite bitters:


Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters: Operating from New York state since the 1950, Fee Brothers brings us a robust, nutty flavoring in these unique bitters. They pair well with a sweet rye or kentucky bourbon.


Regan’s Orange Bitters Number 6: Created by bar legend and author, Gary Regan, these bitters are perfectly crafted and incredibly versatile.

Scrappy’s Bitters Lavender: This Seattle based operation brings us a hand-numbered bottle of savory bitters that goes unmatched. “Capturing spring in a bottle”, this well rounded lavender flavor goes as well with a cognac as it does with a gin.

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