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Feb 17, 2008 12:30 PM

OK i admit it, i'm intimidated by bitters

I never know what sort of drinks they're good in, how much a dash is, and why to choose to use or not use them

I have some angostura thats been sitting around forever (is it still good?) and just bought some blood orange bitters to try to expand my horizon... so bless me with your collective hound knowledge.... what do you think are the where's when's what's and how's of bitters?

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  1. Think of bitters as an accent. They are used to add a bit of spice, complexity, and to bring out inherent flavors in a drink. They work well with many styles of drinks, especially those that have only 2-4 ingredients. The ones they don't work well with most of the time are drinks with milk, cream, eggs, large amounts of juices, in them.

    A dash is basically how much that comes out when you give one shake into a glass or shaker. 2-3 drops.

    If the bottle has been sealed the bitters should be fine no matter that age.

    To get used to what bitters are you should play with them. First wash your hands well with plain water and no soap, then put 2-3 drops of bitters on one hand and rub them together. Cup your hands and smell deeply. What do you smell? Then lick your palm and taste.

    Try adding a dash to a glass of cold still or sparkling water. Stir gently and taste. It will be different than when you tasted them straight. Make a Pink Gin- gin on the rocks with a splash of water and a dash of bitters. Stir and sip. See how the bitters add to the botanicals complexity?

    Do the same with a whiskey. Maybe with a small amount of sugar or simple syrup as well. See how the drink is more complex?

    Get a decent cocktail book. Something like one by Gary and Mardee Regan, Dale DeGroff, or The Savoy Cocktail Book. NOT Mr. Boston. Try some recipes that have bitters in them, but make them with and without. See the difference.

    I assume that the blood orange bitters are Stirrings? They are much weaker and sweeter than most other bitters and you need to use more than you would of say Regans Orange Bitters or Fee's, but less simple syrup or sugar.

    Go to PDT, Death & Co., or some other really top notch cocktail bar in NYC at an off time and chat with the mixologists. Ask them about their thoughts on bitters...

    3 Replies
    1. re: JMF

      Very solid advice from JMF on all account except one. The current Platinum itteration of Mr Boston's Guide is definitely cocktailian-worthy. Robert "Drinkboy" Hess wrote the chapter on classic cocktails and the whole book has been revised to reflect the current trend in quality mixology (i.e. fresh fruit juices, quality ingredients, no pre-mix ingredients, proper attention to balance and proportion and a distict lack of trendy drinks and much much more a the historical array of recipes make it very much more than worth the $13 price tag. I don't know if the red-bound edition has been similarly revised (if so, then kudos on that as well).

      Of course, if you happen upon a previous edition from the past few years then definitely take JMF's advice and pass it by...

      1. re: Scortch

        Scortch- I didn't know that DB had worked it up to quality standards. Thanks for the heads up.

        1. re: JMF

          Well, while giving Mr. Hess the props he deserves for his contribution, make sure to check out the whole list of contributors and editors if you snag a copy. It's a dizzying array of names you know and names you should know (or at least be served by sometime) - a few of my fav Boston-area bartenders are in there, and possibly some of your own!

    2. I was told by an old bartneder that bitters and soda water will soothe an upset stomach. Don't know if it's true.

      5 Replies
      1. re: stellamystar

        absolutely true! a major ingredient of bitters is ginger, so it naturally settles the stomach. to make ginger ale "from scratch" as a bartender would, fill a glass with ice, add several dashes of bitters, and fill with 7-up. most barstaff like "double stuff' ginger ale, with extra bitters and a squeeze of lemon. try it!

        1. re: soupkitten

          Ah ha!!! Great excuse to buy some bitters. It's Medicine!!!

          1. re: stellamystar

            Angostura bitters is great at curing hiccups too! Put a few dashes on a lemon wedge and suck on it, works every time...

            1. re: penny35

              Of course putting sugar on a piece of lemon and sucking, sucking on a sugar cube, or on a lollipop; will all stop hiccups.

        2. re: stellamystar

          Bitters and soda is a drink I have often all year round, and almost every day in the summer. It's also a fabulous thing to order in a bar when you're with friends but you don't want to drink or don't want to spend much money (many bars will give you free refills).

          It's great with a squeeze of lime, but usually at home I just splash 3 or 4 generous dashes of bitters over an ice-file pint glass, and than fill up with club soda. I like cheap carbonated water in this beverage; the Italian stuff is just too gentle. You actually develop a thick, pink, frothy head if you make the drink this way. This wil notbe to some people's taste, but I'm a fan.

          I have 9 bitters in my collection, and I've tried them all, but I must say that I like this drink best with Angostura. Maybe it's because that was what was used in this drink the night I fell in love with it—I don't know.

          Anyway, I was just excited to see bitters and soda mentioned. Cheers!

        3. You can use angostura bitters in a wide variety of drinks (they are a huge fan of it in the Playboy's Bartending Guide). I recently tried a recipe that was Champagne, a dash of angostura bitters, a bit of sugar, and a twist of lemon. It was amazing: great blend of spice and sweetness!!! (And for those of you wondering why I was using champagne as a mixer, it's because my roomie bought not as good of champagne as I generally like, so we decided to experiment:) )

          1 Reply
          1. re: wildfire

            Just so you know, that's essentially a champagne cocktail.

          2. I love the way absolutely everything is right here on CHOW! I was just about to post a similar comment about the W/S blood orange bitters languishing in my refrigerator. I love Angostura bitters, burt this stuff is a little too pungent, a little splash seems to overpower any drink. JMF says these are weaker? I don't agree. Well maybe weaker but still overwhelming, to me. Am I doing something wrong here?

            4 Replies
            1. re: passycafe

              W/S Bitters? I referred to Stirrings. Never heard of W/S.

              1. re: JMF

                Stirrings is the brand, Williams Sonoma the store that sells it; sorry for the confusion.

                1. re: passycafe

                  Oh, ok. Yes, they are much weaker than other bitters in both flavor and alcohol content. But they taste pretty good, you just have to use a few dashes, instead of just one.

              2. re: passycafe

                Sort of like a champagne cocktail crossed with a mimosa, I enjoyed a drink with blood orange juice, blood orange bitters and prosecco and a garnish of a sprig of thyme. Blood oranges are in season right now...I think it would be just as good without the garnish, too. Cheers! ;)

              3. My all time favorite drink featuring bitters is a cocktail I served for Christmas to my family this year--good cheer was had by all! You can make one just for yourself, OR to serve a crowd make a larger container of the "base" and just top it with the champagne when you're ready to go. I mixed: a shot of Junipero Gin, two generous splashes of orange bitters (I think you could use regular, though) 1/2 shot of cointreau, and a generous squeeze of lemon. Top with champagne. Not too tart, not too sweet, LOTS of flavor.

                OH, and don't forget about a New Orleans favorite, Peychaud's!! A totally different flavor, essential for a Sazerac, and a great red color.