Midway through January, we are starting to think violent thoughts at the idea of another vodka, soda and lime. This is a perfectly lovely drink, of course, but it has turned into an effervescent highway of boredom, paved by the good intentions of low-alcohol, "healthy" drinking. Our desire to be healthy after the holidays is getting us down. But there’s no need to get bitter about it, thanks to cocktail & digestive bitters!
Bitters add complexity and flavor to drinks so you can reduce the amount of alcohol to create low alcohol drinks without sacrificing taste.
What are Bitters? The Abridged Version
Bitters are such a versatile substance that we are working on a separate bitters 101 article, but for now we’ll give you the short version. There are two kinds of bitters – cocktail bitters and digestive bitters. We’ll start with cocktail bitters. They are essentially spices for drinks, and you use a small quantity, like you’d use spices in food. And just like spices, they can swap in flavor when you reduce or remove other ingredients – alcohol and mixers in this case.
Cocktail bitters are made with spices and plant-based ingredients in a tincture of water and alcohol. They are very concentrated, so you only use a few dashes per drink. Some of these ingredients, like the gentian plant in aromatic bitters, have medical benefits like improving digestion. This means that even cocktail bitters are digestive bitters in a sense, though digestive bitters are in a different category of their own.
Bitters have their roots in ancient medicinal treatments, but we’ll leave medical claims aside for this article, since we’re really focused on using bitters as a tasty way to make low alcohol drinks.
It's important to note that cocktail bitters are not technically alcohol-free. They contain alcohol as a solvent to carry the spices. But at the quantities you’re using them, you get such a minuscule amount, that we feel like it’s basically alcohol free for our purposes. But if you're trying to avoid alcohol entirely, for any reason, keep this in mind.
Once you are turned onto cocktail bitters, you’ll realize that there are hundreds of them. So. Many. Flavors. They range from lavender bitters, to cherry bitters, to chocolate, celery, habanero, grapefruit, and even tobacco bitters. But like when you started your home spice collection with salt and pepper, you’ll want to start your bitters collection with the basics. And that means a good aromatic bitters like Angostura aromatic bitters and a citrus-based bitters like Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters. We mention these bigger brands because they are representative of their categories and you’ll see them at bars, but there are other entrepreneurial bitters makers doing very interesting things. As always, The Crafty Cask recommends that you check out what’s going on locally in your area.
One of those more craft bitters companies is New York City-based Hella Cocktail. For years, three friends were just making bitters for their community because they didn’t love what was commercially available. In 2011, they launched on Kickstarter to fund a bigger batch. This passion turned into a company that makes bitters, mixers, and a ready-made bitters and soda in a can. This cocktail bitters set is a great starting point if you're just getting into bitters and need to stock your bar.
Bitters and Soda: Our Favorite Low-Alcohol Drink
Using cocktail bitters with soda is probably the most common way to use bitters in an almost no, but really low-alcohol drink. Pour a glass of club soda over ice, add a few shakes of aromatic bitters, and stir. That’s it. We personally like to mix and match bitters to create fun flavor combinations. Cranberry bitters and lemon bitters in soda is one of our founder's favorites! Since bitters can be a bit too, well – bitter! – for some you can also add a little simple syrup. We also enjoy adding aromatic bitters or other cocktail bitters to flavored sodas like ginger ale, grapefruit soda, and tonic water.
More interested in a pre-made bitters and soda… lucky for you this is now a hot trend! Hella Bitters does this work for you by making a bitters and soda in a can. There are two varieties, Aromatic Spritz (with a little sugar) and Aromatic Dry (without) that come in a narrow can. We tried Aromatic Spritz (12 12-oz cans for $30 on Amazon.com) and thought it tasted great. We drank it plain over ice and really tasted the complexity of the gentian root extract, allspice, cinnamon, and star anise.
We also love the bitters and pre-canned bitters and soda from The Bitter Housewife (cutest brand name ever!) Newer to the scene but taking it by storm, her drinks and bitters are flavorful, complex, and balanced.
We could definitely do a month of Dry January with either of these. We’re putting them in our purse and going to the movies (What? That’s classy!) and toting it along to other fun outings where we want to feel like we're drinking but keep the ABV low. We also drink it with 1.5 oz of bourbon for a twist on the Boulevardier, as a higher-alcohol splurge. Shhh. We never said we were actually doing dry January!
Aside from cocktail bitters, there’s another category of bitters called digestive bitters, or digestifs. Although confusingly drinks made with these can often be aperitifs to enjoy before a meal as well! Campari and Aperol are popular brands of these and there are plenty of craft distillers getting into the digestive bitters game as well. Two of our favorites are Leopold Bros. Apertivo (it's the perfect craft substitute for Campari!) and St. George's Bruto Americano, which is a bit richer and a touch sweeter than the big brand digestive bitters.
You can add digestive bitters to soda as well, but instead of just a dash these are a bit more of a main ingredient since they are more like liqueurs (usually around 20-30% ABV). We like a 2 to 1 ratio, soda to digestive bitters, but you should play around with that based on your palate. This will be more alcoholic and caloric than cocktail bitters and soda, but a lot less than most classic cocktails, like a Negroni.
Bitters Wine Spritzers
We see you rolling your eyes. Stop it! Modern wine spritzers are a thing, and they can be great. Hold your head up high as you add ice to your wine glass because you’re proud and because you’re not drunk. These cocktails have about 3 oz of wine vs. the full five to six oz pour.
The simplest drink is a sparkling wine with a few shakes of cocktail bitters. The color and bubbles extend the feeling of the holidays without the hard-alcohol hangover. Serving the drink in a champagne flute is another way to lower the alcohol you consumer simply by lowering the volume your pour. A champagne flute is generally a six oz glass that holds a four oz pour.
We made a really quick rosé wine spritzer with four ounces of dry rosé wine and four ounces of Hella Bitters Aromatic Spritz. If you want to DIY that, then you can add equal parts rosé, soda, and a few shakes of aromatic cocktail bitters.
We also like adding one part digestive bitters, like Leopold's Apertivo, to three parts wine. Choose a light wine like pinot grigio. Our friend served it to a large group and it was a huge hit. So much so that she ran out of wine glasses… so she started putting them in martini glasses. When you serve such a glamorous blush pink drink, you make up your own rules!
The Hella Bitters team was nice enough to send us a few low-alcohol cocktail recipes, one with cider (which you know we love) and another with champagne. They have more recipes on their website, as well.
1.5 oz Pasubio Amaro or another herbal Amaro from Dolomite region of Italy
2 oz Hella Bitters & Soda Dry
.5 oz Hella Rosemary Collins
2 oz Dry Cider
Garnish: Sprig Rosemary or Thyme and a lemon wedge
Combine ingredients in a highball or wine glass over ice.. Stir gently and garnish.
Lady Stoneheart – Serves 5
(you know we love those batch cocktails!)
4 oz Punt e Mes
2 oz Simple syrup
12 dashes Hella Aromatic bitters
Champagne, for serving
Garnish: Orange twists
Combine Punt e Mes, simple syrup, and bitters in a pitcher; refrigerate until ready to use. Pour 1 oz. mixture into 4–6 coupe glasses. Top each with 3 oz. champagne; garnish with orange twists.
Are you ready to jump into the bitters movement? Both cocktail bitters and digestive bitters alike can be a really fun home cocktail making journey for delicious yet low alcohol drinks. One thing to note is that because of the concentrated nature cocktail bitters can be a bit of an investment with a 5oz bottle costing around $15. Unless you're a bartender though, you won’t go through it very fast so it will keep your tummy and palate happy for quite a while.
We find cocktail bitters so versatile and creative that we think the investment is worth it. Start small and add to your collection based on taste. Or, like we mentioned, get a cocktails bitter set for variety at a lower cost. And when you’ve finally recovered from this past holiday season, you can always put more flavors (cardamom bitters?! chocolate bitters?! Go crazy.) on your wishlist for next year. Until then have a wonderfully bitter new year Tippler Nation!
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