Cocktail bitters, as we know it today, actually has a much longer and more rich history than people are aware. In fact, its roots date back as far as ancient Egypt. Except, they didn’t use it as an additive to craft the perfect drink. Back then, bitters were used strictly for medicinal purposes.
For reference: bitters can be defined as “liquor that is flavored with the sharp pungent taste of plant extracts.” Yes, bitters does, in fact, have alcohol in it, though we would never suggest trying to drink it straight. Back in the days of the Egyptians, it was likely created by infusing herbs in wine. This was refined through the Medieval period as distilled alcohol became more readily available and pharmacognosy (the study of medicinal plants) became popularized. By the 19th century, bitters (which had become more like a concentrate than a drink) was commonly taken as a remedy for a whole host of maladies that might befall someone, especially with regards to stomach health. It wouldn’t be until after then that bitters would grow into the cocktail additive we know and love today.
Now, you can find the stuff in just about any supermarket and it has become a necessary staple for any bar that serves craft cocktails. And while there are many drinks that call for the additive, the most noteworthy is perhaps the Old Fashioned. Though you can’t do much in regards to your bitters choice out at a bar or restaurant, anyone who fancies themselves a home bartender has a wide selection to choose from. So, we’ve gone ahead and put together the following list of the 8 best bitters for an Old Fashioned.
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
Gaz Regan (formerly Gary Regan) is the quirky bartender and cocktail columnist behind this slick orange bitters that shares his last name. With 45% alcohol and notes of spicy cinnamon and clovers, this cocktail addition is perfect for all manner of whiskey cocktails – including manhattans, sazeracs, and – of course – the classic old fashioned. In fact, the creator himself suggests that this additive goes perfectly in a rum martini or sloe gin cocktail, as well. Basically, it’s an all-around great bitters to have in any home bar.
Jack Rudy Aromatic Bitters
Although the aromatic variety is kind of like the vanilla ice cream of bitters, there are some that are far more well done than others. This is the case with this offering from Jack Rudy. Made in small batches, this collaboration with Cocktail Punk (out of Boulder, Colorado) is made with a base of burnt cane sugar and features subtle notes of citrus, winter spices, and bittering agents. Best of all, if you have one too many cocktails and need to take the edge off of your hangover the following morning, you can squeeze a few drops of this tonic into your water bottle or ginger ale and it will help ease your nausea.
Peychaud’s Aromatic Cocktail Bitters
This bitters brand has roots that date back to the late 1700s in New Orleans, Louisiana – where it was originally used to help cure ailments. Now just one of two bitters brands to survive through prohibition, it’s a superb additive to an old fashioned, sazerac, manhattan, whiskey sour, and pretty much any other whiskey (bourbon or otherwise) cocktail out there. And one of the best parts about this 35% ABV cocktail additive is that it is still made, to this day, where it was born in the heart of New Orleans.
Bittermilk No.4 New Orleans Style Old Fashioned Rouge
While this bitters offering is made in the New Orleans style (just like Peychaud’s), it is actually crafted and bottled in Charleston, South Carolina. But don’t let that deter you, because this bitters is still an impressive and delicious cocktail additive variety created by the hands of skilled bartenders. It features hints of licorice and spices, but is well-balanced thanks to its ingredients – which include cane sugar, organic lemon peel, wormwood, and gentian root. And the unique rose color of this bitters is actually derived from the cochineal, a Peruvian red beetle.
Angostura – which is named for the town in Venezuela and not the medicinal tree – is the gold standard for cocktail bitters around the world. But don’t let its popularity fool you into thinking that it’s only good because of how common it is, because it can still stand up to the best of them. In fact, these bitters are probably only as popular as they are because they are some of the best ever created. For reference, this is the only other brand of bitters (alongside Peychaud’s) to have survived through prohibition – as it was originally formed in the early 1800s to be sold to sailors as a cure for getting seasick.
Hella Smoked Chili Bitters
Every variety of bitters the Hella brand makes is superb. But we are particularly fond of this smoked chili variety. Sure, many purists would scoff at the idea of putting this into an old fashioned, but we strongly believe that variety is the spice of life. And sometimes we want a little bit of spice in our cocktails. Like everything the brand makes, this bitters is made in small batches in the brand’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn location. And, like we said, everything Hella makes is solid – so, if spicy isn’t your bag, there’s plenty more to try.
Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters
If you don’t already know: one of the chief ingredients in an old fashioned is orange peel. And a complementary flavor to orange is, believe it or not, chocolate. And its the addition of chocolate that draws us to this particular variety of bitters from the Fee Brothers. Whether you just like the complexity of a deep flavor palette or you’re looking for a dessert cocktail to top off your night, the simple addition of this Aztec Chocolate bitters will do you right.
Bar Keep Organic Apple Bitters
Whereas most bitters are made with hints of orange, this one takes a vastly different approach and uses apple. And while it might seem hard to compare apples to oranges, it’s fair to say that the result is a successfully unique and delicious cocktail additive. Originally a homespun recipe from a bartender named Marshall Altier, this award-winning organic aromatic bitters – made by Greenbar distillery – features notes of caramelized apple and warm spices that go as great with whiskey cocktails as it does with rum and brandy.
Best Whiskey For An Old Fashioned
Now that you’ve got your bitters, you’re going to need something to mix it with. Try one of our picks of the best whiskies for an old fashioned.