Orange bitters are basically my cocktail Superman. When I've screwed up a drink by making it too sweet or gotten so close to perfection only to end up with something flat-tasting, orange bitters have swooped in to save the day. Just a drop or two can add the right depth or bridge together ingredients that aren't quite living up to their mixological potential. But orange bitters are so much more than a way to fix a bad drink—they're an essential part of so many balanced cocktails because of their deep, citrusy, spicy, and complex flavor.
What's Available to Buy
We're lucky to live in The Golden Age of Bitters. There's such a variety of outstanding options available—from the classic Angostura and Peychaud's to wild flavors like Sriracha and Xocolatl Mole—so it's hard to remember that several years ago you couldn't even find orange bitters in a well-stocked liquor store. Now Regans', Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth, and Angostura orange bitters are easy to get a hold of, and small-batch bitters producers are popping up like crazy. As we've discussed on SE: Drinks before, each brand varies a bit in orange flavor and spiciness, so there's an orange bitters for every occasion—and many bars mix more than one version together to make a house blend.
Homemade bitters require a couple of obscure ingredients and a sense of adventure. If you're game, you'll be rewarded with a unique, versatile cocktail ingredient that lasts for years. All you need is something to make your bitters taste bitter (usually an herb or tree bark), plus spices and other sources of flavor, and alcohol to steep them all in.
There isn't much point to creating exact duplicates of what's already on the market, since bitters are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. The beauty of DIY bitters is unleashing your creativity and crafting bitters that you can't find anywhere else. I emphasized anise in the recipe I've provided here, but you could just as easily play up the cloves or add cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, or ginger for a whole new flavor profile. You could even devise a special orange bitters recipe exclusively for margaritas, if that's your thing! (I'd recommend bumping up the orange and adding cardamom and cinnamon in that case.)
You'll need to get your hands on some gentian root, which is what makes bitters taste, well, bitter. (There are a few online sources, so this isn't such a big deal.) I also used quassia chips, another bitter ingredient that adds a woodsy, tea-like quality to the mix. However, if you have some leftover cinchona bark from making your own tonic or wormwood leaves from making sweet vermouth, those are other bittering options.
Orange Bitters were essential to so many 19th Century cocktails, so you'll see them pop up in a ton of classics like the Martinez. Add a few dashes to a Martini or Vesper, and you'll probably never want to go back.
Those classic drinks are pretty simple, but orange bitters also tie together more complex drinks like Satan's Whiskers and The Revolver or lighter, fruitier drinks like the No. 8, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and this Blood Orange Cocktail. While you can't (or shouldn't) drink a glass of bitters undiluted, you can enjoy the flavor by itself: just add a few drops to a glass of seltzer water for a satisfying drink.