New varieties of bitters are coming on the market every day. Nowhere are both the growth and diversity of the bitters world more evident than with Orange Bitters. We decided to sit down around the benches outside The Meadow with a gaggle of employees and cocktail aficionados to get to the bottom of this delicious subject.
Orange bitters are the most versatile and popular flavor of bitters. The orange plays beautifully off the herbaceous botanicals of gin, lifts up the treacle-spiciness of rum, and ensnares the fiery caramel flavors of good bourbon. More importantly, in today’s ever-expanding landscape of cocktails, orange bitters sharpen the flavors of ingredients that might otherwise might be uncooperative or ungainly. In other words, orange bitters not only adds complexity to an already good cocktail, a dash here and there can also fix one that, try as you might, just doesn’t add up.
All that being said, not all orange bitters are created equal. Some are one-note, some are intriguingly multifaceted, some are bitter, some are less so, or not at all. It starts with a bitters maker’s choice of base alcohol. Though a neutral grain alcohol like Everclear is probably most common, one may opt for rum, whiskey, gin, etc. Some may eschew alcohol altogether in favor of glycerin–a choice some believe ultimately disqualifies the resulting product as a bitters. The bittering agents too can vary. Gentian root extract is the most prevalent, but others include quassia, calamus, and angelica root–or any combination of one or more of them.
Then there are the rest of the flavoring agents.
In orange bitters as with any bitters, fragrant roots, herbs, spices, barks, fruits, or even meats–forsooth, bacon-flavored bitters do exist. It might be a simple, single-note recipe, or a wild compendium of diverse flavors. Different brands of orange bitters derive characteristic flavors not just from the different varietals of orange and citrus, but also the different parts of the fruit: blossom, peel, pith, flesh, juice, etc.
Maceration, where the ingredients are steeped in alcohol, will also vary from producer to producer. Because orange peel might need to steep for longer than gentian, a producer might opt to macerate each ingredient separately, and then combine the results in controlled proportions. Most prefer to do everything in a single batch, allowing all the ingredients to marry more harmoniously, though perhaps adding some of the more fragile ingredients later in the process.
All the permutations of ingredients and different approaches to maceration allow for nearly endless possible outcomes of sweet, bitter, spicy, pungent, and sour.
At The Meadow our selection of bitters is constantly growing—and these days, growing rapidly. The social circles of mixologists and cocktail professionals are not in want of creative minds, most of which have developed their own take on the classic orange bitters. With so many choices on our table of bitters, picking an orange one can seem more difficult than it ought to be. I decided to compare them all side by side not only to help out curious customers, but also to keep them straight in my own head.
Angostura Orange – Clear in color, this is one strong tincture. It’s like chewing on an orange peel: intense, bitter orange oil, extraordinarily complex with prevalent herbaceous and floral tones. A nice, light nose of orange blossom. The complexity of this bitters makes it the right choice for bolstering sweeter alcohols like rum, or maybe whisky or gin, or at least an equally complex and spicy vermouth or aperitif like Bonal, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, or even Oregon’s own Imbue. Anything else might be easily overpowered by Angostura Orange.
Bittercube Orange – Not a very bitter bitters, this one tastes of candied orange peel with hints of mint, or maybe even vanilla and chamomile (though the bottle says cardamom and coriander). The first thing to hit the nose is astringent alcohol but it’s quickly followed by orange zest. Its sweetness is perfectly balanced out by its bitterness, making this a fantastically versatile bitters, especially for crafted, viscous cocktails.
Bitter Tears “Lucille” Blood Orange Ginger – Right up front is a muted orange taste, followed by a smoky ginger that hints at savoriness with more herbaceous than floral notes. The nose starts off as cinnamon and then morphs into an astringent orange pith and can definitely hold its own when used to top a hefty drink, giving you a whiff of island spice.
Bob’s Orange & Mandarin – Darker in color than the other bitters, Bob’s Orange & Mandarin bitters is sweet and slightly bitter, with syrupy notes of citrus, canned mandarins, orange blossom, and other high floral tones like iris or elderflower. On the palate it’s nice and juicy, but in truth it doesn’t seem to have much of an nose. This isn’t the bitters to use for an aromatic float on top of your drink, but the flavor is versatile and will nicely complement the herbal and floral components of a gin cocktail, or even a bubbly flute of champagne and elderflower syrup. The Orange & Mandarin bitters strikes me as too delicate for most food uses, but I can see it in a salad dressing with a milder base like grapeseed oil.
Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters – The taste and nose of this bitters are highly reminiscent of orange soap, fresh from the hand pump. There may be a hint of lavender, but this one is first very sweet, then very bitter. Not one for subtlety, Fee Brothers’ take on the orange bitters is a bit too untempered for my taste, but will definitely hold its own against an indelicate spirit or a drink with many robust ingredients. It actually does make for a great addition to a salted chocolate fondue.
Hella Bitter Citrus – What a wonderfully balanced bitters! Nine types of citrus pith marry together in a well focused and lifted start, bestowed with a little more power thanks to the addition of what’s likely cardamom as well as something with a peppery bite. There’s no heaviness to this bitters, so it will really soar in lighter-bodied cocktails but would also make for a perfect all-around both at the bar and in the kitchen.
Miracle Mile Orange Bitters – Coming from a small batch bitters maker in Los Angeles, this bitters does a nice yo-yo from sweet to bitter and back to sweet, giving a well-rounded impression on the palate. Fortified with warm spices like cinnamon and allspice that manifest very strongly in the nose, there’s a slight floral quality afforded to this bitters that likely comes from juniper. All in all incredibly well balanced, just the right combination of sweet, bitter, and warm makes Miracle Mile’s a very versatile orange bitters. Used to top a drink you’re likely to get more spice than orange out of this one.
Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters – A very bitter bitters, Regan’s tastes of caramelized orange right up front but quickly devolves into a strong cardamom. The alcoholic nose gives way to a very light hint of orange blossom. The bitterness of this orange bitters lingers far after all the other flavors and aromas have made their march across the palate, making this one a good choice for balancing out a cocktail based on a sweeter spirit like rye by providing contrast to its caramelly notes. Rather versatile, but maybe not the best choice for a blunter alcohol like vodka.
Scrappy’s Orange – This orange bitters is on the spicier end, though not as much as Angostura. It tastes of a juicy orange – clear, bright, unmuddled, and definitely not from concentrate. With aromas of candied orange peel, the finish on the mouth is shorter and less herbaceous than Angostura. Its straightforwardness makes it, in my opinion, the most versatile orange bitters, whether for drinks or for food use.
Urban Moonshine Citrus Bitters – Not overly bitter but very herbaceous, Urban Moonshine’s line of bitters lean more toward the medicinal end of the spectrum. Citrus pith is in the front-most flavor but it is joined by a medley of herbs and roots with dandelion and burdock being the most pronounced. I don’t see this one working in a cocktail, but as a digestif in a bit of seltzer it is very clean and refreshing.
Orange is one of those amazing flavors, or experiences rather, that recalls thoughts of sun and ease, even in the chilly midst of winter. Orange bitters lend something of this evergreen optimism to the cocktails and foods alike.
Try putting an orange slant on the classic Old Fashioned, which calls for bitters muddled with a sugar cube, then covered with whiskey and an orange twist. A Manhattan can take on a whole new sweet and savory meaning with the addition of bacon bitters and a float of orange-ginger bitters that glides in over the top of your palate. Add a few dashes to a Tom Collins or Salty Dog for an increased surge of citrus. Orange bitters do not begin and end with cocktails. Culinary uses abound, too. Mix some bitters into honey for your tea, or put them in a light and floral olive oil with rice vinegar to top a salad of baby greens. Whip some sweet orange bitters into heavy cream and dollop over crepes, or hot cocoa.
Interested in making bitters? Sign up for our Build Your Own Bitters class at our shop in New York City this fall!
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