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It is true that there are a good number of cocktails that you can make where the ingredients are simply alcohol or maybe a mixer such as lemonade.  But if you want to expand your repertoire and try more complex drinks, then you will quickly run into bitters and cordials.  But what are these ingredients and why do you need them for cocktails?

Understanding bitters and cordials


By en:User:Axarus (SF Werle) [CC BY-SA 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cordials have been around a long time and started life as medicinal drinks that were used from the 15th century onwards.  They were made using plant materials as well as other ingredients and were often added to alcohol and consumed by patients as a folk medicine.  Today’s cordials are descended from these and have also transformed into the dilutable drinks that many of us enjoy for a soft drink.

Bitters are a concentration of herbs and spices infused to water or alcohol and are known for their bitter taste.  These were invented in the 18th century, again for medicinal purposes but are now used for their flavour benefits.  There are also many new bitters made with ingredients ranging from chocolate to lavender as their use in cocktails has grown.

As well as these two categories of ingredients, there are also two other types of drinks that make use of botanicals.  The aperitif is a drink taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite and is usually dry in taste.  Within the category are the quinquina, drinks that were made with quinine and were originally created to combat malaria.  Dubonnet and Aperol are famous aperitifs that are still popular today.

The opposite of the aperitif is the digestif and it helps the digestion of food as its name indicates.  These drinks tend to use plants that were seen as helping the intestines and tend to be higher in alcohol content as well as sweeter than aperitifs.  Kirchwasser is a German example, made from double distilled cherry brandy and is often used in Black Forest Gateau.

Commonly used examples

One of the most commonly used bitters is the Angostura bitters, used in a number of popular cocktail recipes including the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan and the Singapore Sling.  Angostura is a botanically infused alcohol mixture that is made by the House of Angostura in Trinidad and Tobago, though it was first made in Angostura, now known as Ciudad Bolivar in Venezuela.  Angostura is a concentrated drink that tends to be used by the drop or two.

Campari is another well-known liqueur that is actually an aperitif.  It is made with an infusion of fruit and herbs in alcohol and water that produces a dark red coloured drink.  It is produced in Italy by the Alfredo Campari Group and was originally invented back in 1860.  It is used in cocktails such as the Negroni, the Garibaldi and the Americano.

Jägermeister is a digestif that has become popular recently in its own right for drinks such as the Jagerbomb.  This drink uses 56 herbs and spices including liquorice, anise, poppy seeds, saffron and ginseng and has an ABV of 35%.  It was created in Wolfenbuttel in Germany by Curt Mast and is a type of herbal liqueur known as a Krauterlikor.

Why Do You Need Bitters and Cordials for Cocktails?