Bitter and the Better for It

liquid gold

I’m not sure what prompted me to make my own batch of orange bitters, it may have been my success at my last batch of liqueurs or the news of the 2009 Angostura bitter shortagegasp.  My midwestern instincts to stockpile kicked in on the news, and I has seen a few recipes for orange bitters and I was intrigued. Here’s the recipe I used (obtained from the Chow website), along with a few comments about the making of this batch of bitters:

1.  I was unimpressed with the dried orange peel I found so I made my own, dutifully collecting the peels from the oranges we used in our smoothies and scraped out the pith.  I set them out for a days (make sure they are in a single lay or they will get moldy) and then stuck them in the freezer until I accumulated the necessary amount.

2.  One ingredient I had to hunt for was the gentian extract.  Its not that easy to acquire,  I had almost given up hope and then randomly stumbled across it.

3.  I cannot compare the dried version of the orange peels to my version, but I can tell you that my version had a wonderful fresh orange scent as the peel still retained a lot of the oil.  I suspect the dried version would not be as aromatic.  When I make another batch, I am definitely going to make my own peels.

4.  I let my batch sit longer than the recommended 14 days, more like 25 days, again I cannot make any comparisons but just noted that you did not have to be a stickler on how long you keep the ingredients steeping.


A bitter is an alcoholic beverage made from an infusion of herbs, seeds, fruit peel, roods, spices and bark, and typically do not have added sugar (if it is classified as a tonic it may have some sugar) so they can run the gamut in terms of bitterness with those with sugar being on the sweet side.  One common denominator is that most bitters have a citrus component, and are typically high in alcoholic content, around 45%.  The bitter flavor is often owed to the addition of quinine bark, or in the case of my version, gentian extract.  Bitters, like a lot of food we hold dear (chocolate), started out life in the Western world considered more medicine than food.

Originally, bitters were thought to aid digestion, and many Europeans still feel that they do.  In the United States, because they were sold as a medicine avoided an alcohol tax being applied to them. In the early 1900s, the American Food and Drug Admistration disallowed medical claims for bitters, based on the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act, essentially stating that it had to be proven. As a result, bitters prices rose with the addition of taxes and sales plummeted, and have only really started to increase as interest in classic cocktails developed.

Consuming bitters is definitely not for everyone, and is indeed an acquired taste, in part because appreciating the taste for bitterness is not often developed.  The tongue has four sections of taste, and the part that senses bitterness is at the back of the tongue.  The sweet sensors are at the front, and probably the reason why sweet foods are preferred.  Some people assume that enjoying bitter tastes is a sign of a fully developed palate, somewhat similar to the preference of red wines over white means a more mature palate.

Bitters can be divided into two categories:

  1. Drinking or cocktail bitters are used as apéritifs, or mixed with other beverages – think Campari
  2. Concentrated bitters are meant added only by the drop as flavoring – think Angostura

Another distinction with bitters is when it is consumed relative to a meal.  Most bitters are intended to be consumed after the meal to aid in the digestion of the food.  These  drinks are called “digestifs“.  If they are consumed prior to the meal, with the intent to stimulate the appetite, they are call “apértifs“, though there are exceptions, some examples are Campari, Cynar, and French Dubonnet.

Some bitters – a partial list

Wikipedia provided basis for list – I culled some of the list finding a few no longer being made and also discovered a few new ones.

Appenzeller Alpenbitter (Switzerland)

Amargo Chuncho (Peru) – is a key ingredient for Pisco Sours and is about 40% alcohol.  Angostura bitters are the obvious substitute.

Amaro Lucano (Italy)  Wikipedia describes the taste as similar to Unicom but with less alcohol – 30% as opposed to 40%.  The name “Lucan” comes from the Roman word for Bascilicata, the region where this liqueur is produced.

Amer Picon (France) – A part of Picon Punch, considered a great example of a highball beverage.  Originally, an eye watering 78% proof, it has over the years seen a reduction in the alcohol content.

Angostura bitters (originally from Venezuela, currently from Trinidad and Tobago)  The name comes from the town of Angostura in Venezuela and not the tree.  It is used in a variety of drinks from Pisco Sours to Dry Martinis

Aperol (Italy) – a lower alcohol orange liqueur (only 11%).  Its now part of the Campari brand.  The taste is bitter sweet, but less bitter than Campari.

Araucano (Chile)

Averna (from Italy)

Becherovka (Czech Republic) – a herbal liqueur flavored with anise seeds, cinnamon and over 32 other herbs.

Beerenburg (the Netherlands)

Borsci (Italy)

Calisaya bitters (Italy) This is a type of bitter, not a brand made with Calisaya  bark, also known as cinchona or quinine.

Cappellano Chinato (Italy)

Campari (Italy) – developed in 1860 from a variety of bitter herbs and spices.  One of the most popular bitters available, and one of the few non dark brown Italian bitters.

Carpano Antica (Italy)

Cocchi Chinato (Italy)  This special wine produced with DOCG Barolo, is flavored with quinine bark, rhubarb and gentian, along with a final addition of spices, including cardamom seeds.

Collins Orange (US)

Cynar (Italy) – I love this one, its a moderately alcoholic artichoke based bitter.

Demänovka (Slovak Republic)

Dimitri (Costa Rica)

Fee Brothers bitters (US) made from a range of flavors:  orange, mint, lemon and peach in Rochester, New York

Fernet Branca (Italy) This bitter is made with chamomile

Fernet Stock (Czech Republic) – apparently “real men and extraordinary women” drink this bitter.  This bitter has sugar added to it.

Fernet 1882 (Argentina)

Gammel Dansk (Denmark) This mixture was created in 1964 and contains Angelica, rowan berries, star anise, nutmeg, ginger, laurel, gentian, seville orange and cinnamon.

Hoppe Orange (Holland)

Jägermeister (Germany) – a herbal liqueur well known on many college campuses.

Kuemmerling (Germany)

Lauterbacher Tropfen (Germany)

Meletti (Italy) has a floral, violet and saffron hints.

Nardini (Italy) This bitters includes bitter orange, peppermint and gentian.

Nonino (Italy) – Made from an aqua vitae base of Ribolla, Traminer and Verduzzo grapes, and aged over 5 years in French oak with an infusion of wild herbs.

Par-D-Schatz (from Germany)

Pelinkovac (Croatia)

Peychaud’s Bitters (United States) Peychaud’s bitters is associated with New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Sazerac cocktail. It is a gentian-based bitters, with a subtly different and fruitier taste than the Angostura brand. It is also aromatic, with a hint of cloves and other spices.

Pimm’s No. 1 (UK) – a gin based liquor, first made in 1859 with various fruit juices and spices.

Ramazzotti (Italy) has hints of orange peel and anise.

Ratzeputz (Germany) This bitter has a very high alcohol component (58%), is gingery with a black pepper finish.

Riemerschmid Angostura (Germany)

Riga Black Balsam (Latvia)  Riga Black Balsam with its 24 ingredients, hints of linden blossom, birch bud, valerian root, raspberry, bilberry, ginger with touches of nutmeg and black peppercorn.  Legend has it that Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, having fallen ill during a visit to Latvia, was cured by this drink.

Santa Maria al Monte Amaro (Italy)

Schrobbeler (Southern Netherlands )

Schwartzhog (Germany)

St. Vitus (Germany)

Suze (France) This bitter was developed in 1889 and has a relatively moderate alcohol level of 11%.  Genitan root is added for the bitterness factor.

Underberg (Germany) – found in about every duty free shop the world over.

Unicum (Hungary) is a powerfully strong liqueur, found in a bottle, that someone described as “shaped like an old fashioned bomb” – should be a hint of its potency.

Urban Moonshine (US) Made from citrus and maple

Versinthe La Blanche (an absinthe bitters from France) a bitter, you guessed it, made with absinthe, and the taste reflects this fact.

Weisflog Bitter (Switzerland)

Zucca (Italy) This bitter is made with rhubarb.

In general, bitters can be found from a variety of fruit: peach, orange, rhubarb, maraschino cherry.  The sky’s the limit, and the diversity is amazing.  If you have not picked up on it yet – Italians do more bitters than about any other country, and take their bitters seriously.  Case in point, when your coffee has bitters added to it, its called a “Caffè Corretto” – Corrected Coffee.  I enjoy incorporating my bitters into my menu.  If you thought bitters were only for drinking, you’re missing out, they make a great addition to cooking; adding complexity to soups, sorbets, and a host of other dishes.

Update me when site is updated

24 comments for “Bitter and the Better for It

  1. March 20, 2010 at 10:37 PM

    Goodness I really did not realize that there were so many other bitters! Forgive my ignorance but I’m from Trinidad where Angostura pretty much has the market cornered. BTW some good news in last week’s paper Angostura has increased production and can now meet the demand for bitters.

  2. March 21, 2010 at 7:35 AM

    The listing is impressive.I also had no idea there were so many bitters – and one made from rhubarb! Interesting. Somehow love the idea that they were originally sold as medicine…

  3. March 21, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    First off, can I just say how much I love that bottle that looks like a bunch of donuts stacked on top of one another? Where did you get it? It’s so cool!

    Second, do you think if I drink enough Campari that I will look like Salma does in that slinky black dress? 😉

    And lastly, you tempt me to try my hand at making bitters, too. I love that slightly bitter taste of orange peel, so I can only imagine how glorious it would be in a liquour form.

  4. March 22, 2010 at 6:27 AM

    You made your own bitter liqueur, how cool! I bet it was terrific! I do love using bitters in cocktails and fernet branca in particular is a favorite.

  5. March 22, 2010 at 10:58 AM

    Matt LOVES bitters and I am a full-fledged addict of Campari and Soda in summer. :) We have a couple of different ones in our cupboard but I didn’t realize something like Pimms counts as well.

    Pretty awesome that you made your own orange peels. I thought of doing that recently (to be used in Indian cooking), and maybe I’ll have a go now that I see it’s so simple. :)

  6. March 22, 2010 at 1:42 PM

    Wow! What a list!Your posts are amazing! I learn so much from your blog :)The only one I knew was the one from Peru.

  7. March 22, 2010 at 2:04 PM

    This sounds incredible, had no idea. Have to get down to the local supermarket and sample the Italian suggestions here. For research purposes only of course!! Yours does look so beautifully golden!!

  8. March 23, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    Ditto here! I had no idea there were so many either. I was just wondering, when you preserved the orange peel, did you grate it. Don’t quote me on this but I seem to remember reading somewhere that when you use “home made” citrus in wine making, it is suggested that after you clean the rind that you grate it to release the oils. Just curious. I don’t think I’ll be making bitters any time soon. Although, I must admit this post is most inspiring. Kudos to you!!!

  9. March 23, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    How very cool that you made your own bitters, that will have to go on my list to try. And I had no idea that Gammel Dansk and Pimms (and many of the others you mention) were even classed as bitters. I had much experience of Gammel Dansk when I spent a summer in Denmark during my college years – always drunk neat and often with breakfast following a late night out, accompanied by pickled herrings and dark rye bread. Definitely an acquired taste!

  10. March 24, 2010 at 6:18 AM

    I definitely need to expand my bitters realm. I’ve only tasted a few of the ones listed here! I read about making bitters in Saveur once, I think, but haven’t tried it. Yours sounds full of great flavor. Pretty bottle too!

  11. March 24, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    An interesting post, as always. Although I don’t mind bitter flavors, I cannot say that I am a big fan of such drinks. it is definitely an aquired taste….



  12. March 24, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    I love bitter in cocktails and specifically a drink brand “terma” that has a bitter one with medicinal proprieties.
    Several of the mentions are unknown for me till today, thanks for sharing :)

    Have a great week,


  13. March 24, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    Wow, Wow and another extra added WOW! Thanks for all the list and the rest of information. I’ve never made my own before but you just make me want to make one–would be great for adding some flavor!

    Thanks again for all these useful information, master.

  14. admin
    March 24, 2010 at 5:35 PM

    Wizzy – as I understood the problem it was also a matter of their supplier making the bottles – it was interesting to watch the “panic” play out on the web

    Claudia – I’m very intrigued by that rhubarb one myself.

    Carolyn – Got a set of mini bottles like that at TJ Maxx – always on the lookout for those sorts and between there and World Market, do pretty good. About Selma – I’ve been tempted to explore this correlation myself. What a way to try =) i have to say I was very impressed with the bitters and anxious to try some more.

    Erica – you were up on me – I did not know about the one from Peru =)

    Brenda – I’m with you, there is just something nice and thirst quenching about Campari and sodas. The orange peels could not have been easier. I just felt I could not deal with the desiccated stuff I was finding in stores.

    5 Star – I agree, they add a nice zing to foods and beverages

    Ruth – I envy your location in Italy – you can really do some good research.

    Louise – I did not grate the rinds – makes sense, kept them in relative small strips, just made sure to remove the pith.

    Spud – You must try making bitters, maybe some potato version? The Gammel Dansk episodes sound like they might include some good stories.

    Lisa – Yes indeed there is a lot out there.

    Rosa – I agree it is an acquired taste, especially those that people like to drink straight.

    Gera – Hmm, will have to check out the terma. Sounds good, and like the fact that it has medicinal properties.

    A+A – My pleasure, definitely try making your own bitters – it was a lot of fun, and the final product was so worth it. As to the list – I cannot claim full credit, I got the idea from Wikipedia but just verified and found a few new ones in the process. Its not even the complete list they provided.

  15. March 25, 2010 at 12:21 AM


    I haven’t tasted bitters before, I think! Ooh no, that’s not true, I drink Campari, from time to time,..

    I have learned a lot, again!!

  16. March 25, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    This is very interesting! I’ve not yet tried to make any liqueurs, but it sounds like such a treat to have made your own treasure in a bottle.

  17. March 25, 2010 at 2:32 PM

    I love bitters….but Angostura are by far my best. In Nigeria, we use them to make a non-alcoholic cocktail called Chapman……..hmmmm. Heaven. Superb job on making your own. A great accomplishment!

  18. March 25, 2010 at 7:06 PM

    I’m gonna sound so ignorant…but I’ve never really heard of bitters before, let alone know you can make it yourself. Thank God for you! I always learn something new!

  19. March 26, 2010 at 7:17 PM

    Oh, they use those dried orange peels (to be exact: mandarin orange peels) in Chinese red bean dessert soups too :)

  20. admin
    March 28, 2010 at 6:45 AM

    Sophie – I’d have taken you for an expert, but I agree if you pick one bitter, Camapri is a good choice!

    Christine – I can only say its a lot of fun, plus it gives you ample room to experiment, or play mad scientist in my case.

    Kitchen Butterfly – that from a master is high praise indeed!

    Sophia – as I recall, you do not drink so no surprise there. I’m not an avid bicyclist in that I know all the names so my hubby always looks at me frustrated when I have no clue what he is talking about.

    Tigerfish – The multiple uses of dried orange peel are amazing and I think that Chinese cooking showcases the amazing different flavors that can be achieved with dried vs fresh. Great point.

  21. March 28, 2010 at 3:34 PM

    You constantly amaze me by making things that I would never have concerned possible to make yourself. This sounds really great. I need to remember these kinds of things when I’m stumped for gifts for people. I am a huge fan of Campari in cocktails so I’m sure I would enjoy this.

  22. April 1, 2010 at 8:53 AM

    My husband is a huge bitters fan and has tried a good portion of them on your list – he’s very excited to find a few more he never knew existed. It’s very “in” at the moment to put Aperol in Prosecco – is it also popular in America?

  23. April 19, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    What a great resource!

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