Do Bitters Go Bad?

Reader Sam writes:

“Hi Drinkhacker, love your articles. I have a question maybe you can answer. I’ve had a bottle of bitters on my shelf for a while now, and I was wondering if bitters ever go bad. Thanks for reading and keep up the good work.”

Sam’s question is a good one. If you’re interested in mixology, you likely have a bottle of bitters stashed away for when it’s needed, but it’s not like you use a ton of the stuff when you make drinks; most recipes just call for a few dashes, so that 8-ounce bottle of bitters could last you for a decade or more. Is it a waste of money buying anything more than a little 2-ounce bottle, because the rest will spoil before you can use it?

To start: What exactly are bitters, anyway? Bitters are made by infusing a neutral spirit with various herbs, fruits, bark, spices, seeds, and just about anything else you can think of. In this way, they’re essentially a liqueur, like an amaro or any other bitter spirit. Could you drink a bottle of bitters straight? While we won’t recommend it (it gets the name ‘bitters’ for a reason, drinking it straight is a potent experience reserved for the insane), it’s perfectly safe to just take a swig of bitters, and in fact that was the idea when bitters were first invented: for a long time, bitters (as well as other bitter herbal liqueurs) were actually made as medicines, to be taken as a cure for everything from an upset stomach to gout. There’s evidence that suggests that bitters, or at least a bitters-like liqueur, was the first type of alcohol made: In China, they’ve uncovered evidence of a fermented concoction brewed with bitter hawthorne berries dating back to 7,000 BC, likely used as a medicine.

So now that you know a bitter more about what bitters are, let’s finally get around to answering Sam’s question. The general answer is that bitters don’t go bad, with one exception that we know of. As a liqueur, bitters have a high alcohol content that might surprise you: Angostura, the most famous brand of bitters, has a whopping 45% abv in that little bottle. Because of this, most bitters have a shelf life comparable to any spirit: essentially indefinite. Like all spirits, chemical reactions and evaporation in the bottle will eventually start to change the taste if you keep the same bottle for a decade or more, but none of it will hurt you and the product won’t spoil.

The one exception we have seen are some fruit bitters made by Fee Brothers, because they sometimes dissolve their flavoring ingredients in glycerin instead of ethanol like most liqueurs. Unlike ethanol, glycerin does have a shelf life of about a year or two before it spoils. If you want some fruit bitters and aren’t sure about that bottle of Fee Brothers that’s been sitting on your shelf for a while, maybe try buying a different brand, or just learn to infuse your own neutral spirit with a fruit of your choice. It’s easy and fun.

Thanks to Sam for the question, and if any readers have questions about the strange and wonderful world of alcohol, write to me at [email protected], and hopefully we can answer your questions, too!

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2 Responses

  1. jason kadushin July 27, 2017 / 2:27 pm

    The pt about glycerin vs ethanol is fascinating. What happens to glycerin when it spoils? does it simply taste bad? can it make you sick? etc

    • Ivan Lauer July 28, 2017 / 7:20 pm

      Thanks for reading, Jason. Glycerin is just sugar alcohol so it won’t kill you or anything if it’s spoiled, though I still wouldn’t recommend hunting down a spoiled bottle and chugging it. It will start to smell and taste bad, is all.

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