“Bitters had their heyday in the 1800s before petering out at the turn of the 20th century due to government regulation,” Bitterman says. “Prohibition was the final straw for all but Angostura, one of the oldest bitters companies (not surprisingly, it remains the most well-known bitters producer around today).”
Bitters are made by infusing a neutral spirit with any number of aromatics, such as spices, seeds, tree bark, roots and/or fruits. Bitters were initially developed and marketed for medicinal purposes, with ingredients generally thought to impart good health preserved in a neutral liquor. Health claims began to be a bit outlandish — restoring youthful vigor, curing malaria — and bitters eventually found their way from the medicine cabinet to the liquor cabinet.
Before Prohibition, bitters were prevalent in all kinds of cocktails, but most brands disappeared when the United States cracked down on the production of alcohol. Thanks to a renewed interest in craft cocktails and ambitious bartenders looking for new ways to mix the classics, bitters have been making a big-time comeback.
There are all different kinds of bitters, but they generally fall into one of two categories. Cocktail bitters, the kind that comes in tiny bottles, occasionally with a dropper attached to the cap, are used in small quantities (a drop or two) to add an intense punch of flavor. Digestif or potable bitters, bitter liqueurs or Amari are not quite as potently flavored as cocktail bitters, meaning they are typically consumed on their own, in ounces rather than drops.