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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

Bitters-based cocktails to curl up with this winter

Move aside, classics. Bitters packed with spices are taking a front seat in cocktails around the city.

Written by
Betsy Kennedy

Your bartenders' row of bitters bottles is their very own spice cabinet. They can use it to add a touch of this and a dash of that to bring complexity to your cocktail. But sometimes they go further to make a bitters-focused drink—one with a strong backbone, intensely spicy or bitter. We’ve been seeing this trend all over the city, which is perfect, because we’re tired of our dusty Angostura bottles—and our other bitters—not getting the love they deserve. Here are four cocktails to try.

RECOMMENDED: Our guide to cocktails in Chicago

Bitters 101: Bitters are infusions of roots, spices, fruits and other ingredients, and were originally made as medicine: Even today, you may find a few shakes of Angostura into some tonic water to be a stomach settler. There are two types of bitters: potable (called amaro) and non-potable. Amaro bitters like fernet, Campari and Cynar are designed to be great in a cocktail or solo. Sip some Fernet-Branca with your after-dinner coffee or splash a glug of Cynar into your Coca-Cola. Alone, non-potable bitters like Angostura can taste medicinal and barky, but when dashed on top of or mixed into a cocktail, they bring a trace of excitement. 

Bitters-based cocktails

  • Restaurants
  • Argentinian
  • Loop

When a mojito graduates from college, it turns into this delicious creation from bartender Jess Lambert. Presented in a copper cup filled with a mound of ice, it has a big minty nose with a sweet front and bitter back end. The bitter Cynar complements the drink without diminishing its citrusy kick. To really go in headfirst with bitters at Boleo, try the house-made cola paired with a fernet. $12.

  • Bars
  • Pubs
  • Logan Square
  • price 1 of 4

This list wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the only bar in the nation with Angostura on tap. The AB Negative is the right amount of boozy and—thanks to the spicy flavor from the bitters, green tea and sweet Bärenjäger honey liqueur— tastes just like Christmas. $9.

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Logan Square
  • price 2 of 4

The most complex cocktail of the bunch, this punchy little thing is frothy and slightly sour. The Trinidad Sour comes from the mind of Giuseppe Gonzalez of New York’s Suffolk Arms, but the delightful and hospitable bartenders at the Whistler will concoct this drink with a whole ounce of Angostura, Rittenhouse rye, Orgeat and lemon juice poured into a chilled coupe glass. You’re going to want about 10. $12. 

  • Bars
  • Lounges
  • River North
  • price 2 of 4

Here you get a deck of tarot cards printed with cocktails: Pick the Lonely Horseman. It’s a Lexington-bourbon–based drink with an amaro smack. It also has Hayman’s Royal Dock gin, giving it a freshness you wouldn’t expect from a bitters-forward cocktail. Dunk your cherry into your cup for a real treat. $13.

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