Bitters are essential for any true classic cocktail. Before the term cocktail became a generic term for a mixed alcoholic drink, bitters were part of the definition of cocktail: A spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. If you want to make and Old Fashioned and you don’t have any bitters on hand, you can’t make an Old Fashioned (at least not a good one). So, is there a bitters substitute?
Well, if you are looking for a common household substitute for the bitterness of a typical cocktail bitter, you aren’t going to find it! As bitterness goes, cocktail bitters are as bitter as you are going to get. The classics, like Angostura and Peychaud’s use gentian, a very bitter root. And orange bitters, like Reagan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, use orange peels. They are made with a strong neutral alcoholic spirit and are very concentrated. Of course, they contain other herbs and spices to lend flavor and aromatics.
The only way to mimic this at home is to make your own homemade bitters. This is something that many people are doing today, as the cocktail or “mixology” revolution is still well under way. There are scores of “artisan” bitters showing up on liquor store shelves and many bartenders are making their own. However, a homemade version of bitters is still bitters, not a “substitute for bitters,” and you’d need to purchase the bitter ingredient and other herbs and spices, plus the alcohol, to make your own. If all you wanted was a quick substitute, it would be quicker to run to the liquor store or even the grocery store! A lot quicker. It will take you about a month of mostly hands-free waiting to make homemade bitters.
Although you won’t get near the bitter flavor of a concentrated alcohol bitter, you can use citrus peel, such as lemon or orange, to impart bitter notes to any cocktail, and especially those that call for citrus bitters, orange bitters, or lemon bitters. Keep in mind that you will need to use the peels only without any of the flesh, unless you also want the sour and/or sweet flavor of the fruit to come through.
Bitters Substitute for Old Fashioned or Other Cocktails
The only real substitute for a bitters is another bitters! However, don’t go thinking that bitters are interchangeable. If a cocktail is traditionally made with a certain bitters, and you want it to taste the way you expect it to, you should stick with that particular bitters. The other ingredients, besides the bitter ingredient, matter, and each one will have its own floral, herbal, or spicy undertones. An orange bitters bears no resemblance to a gentian-based bitters.
Although many bartenders may have their own preference, the classic Old Fashioned cocktail tends to be made with Angostura. However, as an Angostura substitute, Peychaud’s is often used, even though they really don’t taste the same. Peychaud’s has a strong anise flavor and a menthol kick not present in Angostura. Of course, if you make your own drinks, the taste is up to you, and you can use any bitters you would like.
I’ve already written a great deal about Angostura, including whether is actually ever contained any angostura. Angostura aromatic bitters are by far the most famous bitters in the world, and it is one of the few that was around prior to prohibition and managed to survive until after it was ended. Other classic cocktails using angostura include the Manhattan.
Peychaud’s is another classic bitters of the few remaining bitters since before prohibition, created in 1830. They are used in the famous New Orleans drink the Sazerac. Both were invented by the same person, a Haitian refugee and pharmacist named Antoine Amedee.
The very popular Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry Bourbon Barrel Aged Cocktail Bitters
Can You Purchase Alcoholic Bitters Online?
Many people wonder since bitters often contain alcohol, which is used to extract the bitter and flavoring elements from the various ingredients, can you still order them online? Yes, since they contain so much bitterness, they are not considered alcoholic beverages but rather “alcoholic non-beverage products.” They are not consumed like a beverage and since they are so very bitter, there is not much danger that anyone would try to consume them this way. Therefore, not only can you order any bitters products online, but angostura and others are often carried in grocery stores.