The fascination with bitters has reached a fever pitch despit most people not understand what they are. So let's take care of that first off:
Bitters are an intense infusion of herbs, roots and botanicals that are usually alcohol-based. Unlike bitter liqueurs, bitters are highly concentrated and are only needed a few dashes at a time. They are also called “non-potable bitters.”
In cocktail terms, I think of bitters like a spice cabinet; their job is to enhance and and support the other flavors, not to bea prominent one themselves. There are so many bitters nowadays, I can’t keep track. But you only really need a handful. Really just one.
In keeping with the spice cabinet analogy, Angostuar is the salt of the bitter's world. If you only have one bottle of bitters, make it this.
Peychaud’s Bitters - A very old brand of Aromatic Bitters (1830s) originating in New Orleans. Instead of Angostura’s intense clove and assorted baking spice flavors, Peychaud’s showcases floral notes, particularly of anise (back to anise again?) which pairs nicely, as you might imagine, with absinthe. After Angostura and orange bitters, Peychaud’s the the third most essential bitters to have in your cabinet. Primarily so you can make a proper Sazerac.
Thanks to marketing, with vodka often you’re just paying for the hype and image of a brand and not what’s in the bottle. For mixing you can get great quality at very affordable prices. I don’t think it’s worth shelling out for super premium vodka to use in cocktails. Save that money for a bottle of Chartreuse, or some nice cheese to go with your drinks.
Orange Bitters - These have become almost as essential for me as Angostura. Old Fashioneds alone justify their purchase. There are several brands available, and most are great. Here are a few I like:
Regan’s - My go to, heavy on spice and bitterness. Some bars (including Clover Club) like to cut to them with another brand of orange bitters, such as Fee's, to tone down the heat and bump up the orange, a fine idea.
Bitter Truth Orange Bitters - Another great choice.
Fee’s - A little sweeter and not quite as bitter with a hint of bubblegum, but they get the job done and are widely circultared. Though be careful not to dash too heavily with these.
Baking Spice Forward Aromatic Bitters - I pretty much made up this category. While the classic brands Peychaud’s and Angostura say aromatic on the label, those bitter’s are so iconic they're essentially their own category. Most other aromatic bitters are darker than those two and heavier on baking spices, particularly cinnamon. I like to have bitters of this style particularly in the fall and winter. I use a bit of these in Old Fashioneds and drinks with apple brandy.
Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters -
Bitter Truth -
Dale DeGroff's Aromatic Bitters
Fee's Aromatic Bitters -
Scrappy's Bitters -