Any bar worth its rimming salt should be stocked with at least a couple of bottles of bitters. Sure, you can make a cocktail without them, but you can also roast a chicken without salt or pepper. Like these everyday seasonings, cocktail bitters add flavour and depth to almost any beverage, and making your own allows you to put a unique stamp on every cocktail you serve.
Photos by Claire Lower.
I urge you to think of bitters as a sort of "cocktail spice rack", and to think of every cocktail as a choose-your-own-adventure type of situation. Homemade bitters are so easy to make (you just throw stuff in jars) that there's no reason not to have a bottle to suit each and every one of your whims. Plus, they make great, super thoughtful gifts.
What's in a Name?
Bitters get their name just how you'd expect: they're flavored with bitter-tasting plant parts. Gentian root (a bitters classic) is the most common bittering agent, but others, such as citrus peel and dandelion root, work just as well, and are much cheaper. Bitters shouldn't be made with 100% bittering agents (that would be gross) but they should be in there.
Angostura (which gets its flavour mostly from gentian root) is a classic for a reason, but bitters can be made in almost any flavour you can think of, from sweet (like vanilla-rhubarb) to savoury (ginger-chilli would be great in a Bloody). So get crazy, kids, and drive this cocktail cart to Flavortown. (For further reading and more recipe ideas, pick up copies of Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons and The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart.)
What are they made of?
Bitters are comprised of three things: strong booze that (usually) has no flavour of its own, bitter plant parts and not-so-bitter plant parts. If you don't happen to live near one of those hippy-run grocery stores that sells such botanicals you can order bittering agents and other herbs and spices from various online specialty stores; just shop around for an option with low prices and good customer reviews.
For bittering agents, consider starting with any one (or more) of these:
- Gentian root
- Oregon grape root
- Wild cherry bark
- Sarsaparilla (root beer guys, root beer)
- Licorice root (gross, but I'm not here to judge)
- Kola nuts
Once you've chosen your bittering agent, start thinking about other flavours that would play well with it. This could include but is by no means limited to:
- Herbs/spices/misc. plant parts: Cinnamon, allspice, peppercorns, anise, cloves, juniper, ginger, lemongrass, sage, rosemary, thyme (probably not parsley though), lavender, mint, coriander, fennel, cardamon, the list goes on and I think you get it.
- Fruit: Citrus peels, apple peels, those awesome dried cherries from Trader Joe's, any other awesome dried fruit from Trader Joe's, raisins (I guess)
- Nuts/beans: Coffee beans, cocoa beans, almonds, pecans, peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts
Lastly, you'll need some ethanol. You want something that is at least 100 proof and not too flavorful on its own. Everclear and high-proof vodka both work great, but there's no law against using whiskey or rum, especially if it fits in your with your flavour vision.
It may be tempting to combine all of the things, but try and start small, with maybe three or four flavours in your first batch. Here are a few combinations that sound pleasing to me:
- Cola Bitters: Kola nuts + vanilla bean + lime zest
- Pumpkin Spice Latte Bitters: Cinnamon sticks + ginger + allspice + nutmeg + coffee beans (I would use high-proof bourbon for this one.)
- Strawberry Rhubarb Bitters: Wild cherry bark + dried strawberries + rhubarb
- Lemon Pepper Bitters: lemon peels + peppercorns
- Peanut Butter & Jelly Bitters: Oregon grape root + grapes + peanuts
Put it all together
It may be tempting to throw everything in one jar and let it all infuse, and there's certainly no law preventing it, but there is one tiny problem with this method: since different botanicals infuse at different rates, you can't easily control the dominant flavour. The "lots of little jars" method takes care of this:
- Place each botanical in it's own little jar. Label it. (The Kitchn recommends starting with a ratio of 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried botanicals per 4 ounces of liquor.)
- Cover them with alcohol.
- Close the jars tightly and put it in a cupboard or something.
- Shake the jars once a day, tasting at the one-week mark to see how everyone is getting on. (A few drops in plain soda water will give you a good idea of the flavour your bitters will impart to a cocktail.)
- Strain the botanicals out of the little jars as they reach their desired strengths.
- Once everyone is as strong as you would like them to be, mix them together to taste. The great thing about this is that it's truly customisable, and no one (not even me) can tell you how to mix your bitters. Play around with various ratios, take copious notes, and once you've arrived at your perfect formula for your special batch of bitters, eat the notes and take your delicious secret to your grave.
- Give your marvellous bottles of bitters out as gifts, laugh as your friends and family beg for the the recipe, but never tell.
Above all, please remember to have fun. Bitters are about customising drinks and taking them to places they have never been before (like Flavourtown, for instance). There's no reason to get bogged down in rules and fancy books. Drinking shouldn't be about following rules anyway.