Bitters: small but perfectly formed

15 April, 2024

The bitters sector is broadening out as brands incorporate new flavours and investigate low/no options.

Cocktail bitters are a tiny, yet crucial, ingredient in drinks. The Old Fashioned, Pisco Sour, Sazerac and Manhattan all include bitters in their recipes and in a recent conversation with a New York bartender, she described them as the “seasoning of cocktails, the salt and pepper of drinks”. The high abv of bitters is what allows them to absorb the aromas and profiles of herbs, making them an in intense extract which bartenders use just a few drops of to elevate a drink. The bitters market has long been dominated by one brand, but new drinking occasions and the arrival of alternative producers are creating a more dynamic market.

Stephan Berg, co-founder of The Bitter Truth, tells Drinks International that “without cocktail bitters, a drink is not a cocktail, but a mixed drink”, and that cocktail bitters add “balance, complexity and flavour to your drinks”. Berg also notes that bitters “should not take the leading role in a cocktail, it should fade away once the cocktail has been consumed and not linger on your tongue or affect the consumer’s follow-up drink. Bitters are kind of a magical ingredient that can turn an average cocktail into a great one”.

Angostura has long ruled the cocktail bitters sector. The dinky white paper bottle is recognised in bars all over the world at all levels, from high-volume venues to the industry’s elite. In Drinks International’s Brands Report, Angostura was the bestselling bitters brand in 80% of the polled bars and stocked by 98% of them. Essentially, Angostura has a hotel on the Mayfair property of the bitters Monopoly board, and with the development of different expressions such as Orange and Cocoa, the industry has a lot of faith in and respect for the brand.

In the past few years however, we’ve witnessed different styles of bitters hit the market, including The Bitter Truth, Bittered Sling and Fee Brothers, among others. Yet one of the consistent challenges for new bitters brands is the lack of shelf presence on back bars. Spirits brands sit proud on the shelves of a bar, whereas a bitters bottle is often hidden behind the bar counter or, especially in top hotel bars, decanted into glass decanters, making marketing tougher than in other sectors. This is perhaps one of the contributing factors to Angostura’s dominance, but one thing which could shake things up is the rise of low/ no-alcohol cocktail demand.

Flying low/no

It’s well documented that younger consumers in developed markets, particularly the US and Europe, are beginning to moderate their drinking. Ben Branson, the brains behind Diageo’s non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip, has just launched his own range of non-alcoholic bitters called Seasn (see p22). The brand has launched with Light and Dark varieties, the prior for lighter, bright drinks like Highballs and the latter for darker, richer drinks such as an Old Fashioned or Manhattan.

“We season our food, I want us to season our drinks,” Branson says. “Seasn’s pair of delicious and intense cocktail bitters are so easy to add flavour and complexity to a variety of drinks with just three dashes. We want to make it really easy, a hack if you will, to make even more tasty drinks.”

Seasn is 0.0% and also vegan, but Branson insists that teetotallers and vegans are not the brand’s target audience. “Seasn is abv-agnostic and our moreish liquids are equally at home in alcoholic serves as they are in non-alcoholic ones. There’s now clear evidence of a large majority of people drinking alc and non-alc – often on the same occasion – and Seasn is an ingredient squarely aimed at foodies who like drinks rather than being defined by the abv.”

Seasn is initially launching in the UK with plans to cross the Atlantic this summer. Branson adds: “The trade response has been overwhelmingly positive as we seek to modernise the monopolised cocktail bitters category and we are excited about introducing consumers to the bartender’s best-kept secret. Seasn launches in New York in June, which is exciting, and we are very much committed to working with our network of the best chefs, bartenders and tastemakers in key food-mecca cities around the world over the coming 18 months.”

Alcohol-free cocktail bitters may be a new concept in the UK and US, but in India it’s common practice for a bar to use non-alcoholic bitters. According to Priyanka Blah, Asia’s Academy Chair for The World’s 50 Best Bars, it isn’t about adhering to younger consumers looking to moderate their consumption, but a necessity under strict government regulations.

“Bitters are not illegal in India, but due to their high abv, they fall under alcohol excise laws, making them extremely expensive to import with the duties that apply to alcohol,” says Blah.

“A 10cl bottle of bitters would be put through the same taxation as a 50-75cl bottle of Scotch (and import duties and taxes are high), causing a single unit to cost eight to 10 times more than the price from the supplier, which therefore makes no sense after slapping on margins.

“There is no workaround because you cannot make your own bitters at the bar since it is considered an adulteration of alcohol – hence infusions are also not permitted. Bars either use the non-alcoholic bitters available for purchase or make their own non-alcoholic bitters.”

As with all products wishing to export to India, trade tariffs remain a significant barrier – especially for alcoholic beverages. Without any authority to provide business advice, a non-alcoholic bitters brand made in India, for India, makes a lot of sense given the size of the market. And while Branson’s Seasn remains in its infancy, he’s not against the idea of infiltrating the market himself: “Two of our key ingredients actually come from India and I spent considerable time there when I left school, so any opportunity to go back I’d grab with both hands,” says Branson. “But, we are 14 weeks old and our focus right now is bringing Seasn to life in 250+ leading bars, restaurants and hotels in the UK.”

It’s worth remembering that cocktail bitters are used to add flavour to a drink, not abv or volume. In the UK and Europe, cocktail bitters aren’t considered a beverage and therefore aren’t a taxable commodity. However, if a non-alcoholic alternative can successfully replicate the intensity of traditional herbal cocktail bitters without the need for alcohol, then it’s open to a much wider audience of consumer.

And when it comes to pricing, Seasn carries an rrp of £29.99 for a twin pack, which is actually a little higher than Angostura and most of its competitors. To the consumer making drinks at home who buys maybe one bottle every other year, it’s irrelevant, but if Seasn and other non-alc alternatives can prove a success in the on-trade then there’s significant money to be made.

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