In December of 2011, we started playing with bitters. Today, we explore how craft meets cocktail with Jesse Goldstein. Read on to learn how to make variations of your own of cocktail bitters and how to use this relatively simple ingredient to add complex layers to your own drinks:
It was in 1806 when the word “cocktail” was first defined in print. The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, NY classified it simply as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” Fellow cocktail enthusiasts may recognize this description as what we would call an Old Fashioned today; but it’s that last, often misunderstood, ingredient listed in the lineup that has fascinated me for many years.
The term “bitters” typically refers to alcohol infused with a variety of botanical ingredients resulting in a somewhat bitter or bittersweet taste. There are really two classifications of bitters: digestive bitters like Campari are sipped neat or on the rocks after a meal; concentrated tinctures of cocktail bitters (often referred to as aromatic or potable bitters) like Angostura are used in drops and dashes in many classic and modern craft cocktails. I’ve often referred to bitters as the “salt and pepper” of cocktails, providing amazing depth and flavor that you can’t get from basic booze ingredients alone. But the more I looked into bitters, the more fascinated I became with their history, their variety and, eventually, the process of making them myself.
Though modern Americans are only recently regaining an appreciation of bitterness, our ancestors once embraced the taste of bitter flavors. Bitters were originally developed for medicinal purposes, with a history traced as far back as ancient Egypt. The proliferation of distilled spirits and an obsession with pharmacology led to even more concentrated varieties in the Middle Ages. The use of bitters for ailments continued for generations, often used as preventative medicine for everything from seasickness to heartburn.
Bolstered by the renaissance of craft cocktails, bitters have been gaining steam amongst cocktail connoisseurs for the past few years. The old standbys of Angostura and Peychaud’s have been joined by companies like Hella Bitters, Scrappy Bitters, and The Bitter Truth popping up all over the country—reimagining bitters in small batches with flavors created specifically for cocktails. These purveyors are joining classic bittering ingredients of gentian, quassia bark, dandelion, or wormwood with ingredients more commonly found in your kitchen spice cabinet. But these craft bitters are not cheap, often fetching more than $10 for a single ounce.
For just a few bucks and a little time, you can make your own cocktail bitters at home. While you can certainly mix the ingredients and infuse them together, I prefer infusing individual ingredients on their own and blending the finished infusions to make the final bitters.
You’ll need to gather a few items before starting the project. While some ingredients may already be sitting in your spice cabinet, others can be ordered online from Frontier Co-Op or Mountain Rose Herbs.
- A high-proof neutral base spirit, such as Everclear or vodka to provide the base for your infusions
- Small, clean glass jars and droppers for infusing and blending
- Bittering agents like wormwood, calendula flowers, dandelion root or leaf, citrus peel, angelica root, artichoke leaf, burdock root, cinchona bark, gentian root or mugwort.
- Flavoring ingredients such as spices, herbs and flowers, nuts, fruits, and beans.
— Common spices are cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, fennel, ginger, cloves, peppercorns, celery seed, nutmeg, and vanilla beans.
— Ideal herbs and flowers are bay leaf, rose, lavender, chamomile, hibiscus, rosemary, sage, lemongrass, and mint.
— Strongly-flavored nuts such as black walnut and pecans are perfect for bitter infusions.
— Fruits such as fresh or dried citrus peels and dried fruits like figs, cherries, and berries are excellent additions.
— Beans like coffee beans or cacao beans provide further depth to infusions.
Start with infusing your ingredients. Each ingredient infuses at a different rate, but as a general rule, you’ll use 1 part dried botanical to 4 parts liquor or 2 parts fresh to 4 parts liquor. Crush or chop your botanicals to provide more surface area, but avoid using ground spices, as they’re harder to filter out.
Place your botanicals in the jar and add the liquor. Seal, label and date the jars and set in a cool, dark place. Shake the jars daily and allow them to infuse. Depending on the botanical, it may take as little as one day or as long as two weeks to extract the flavor. Regularly smell and sample each one, adding a few drops to an ounce or two of water. Once you can clearly smell and taste the ingredient, the infusion is ready to use. You can choose to filter your ingredients or allow them to settle and simply pull the clear infusions from the top.
The fun part really comes in the blending of flavors. Combining the infusions is much like seasoning a dish, adding ingredients that enhance each other with complimentary aromas. You can sample the blends by adding them to a small glass of water before mixing larger batches; just keep track of the process so you can replicate it. Each should have a balance of bitterness and botanical flavors.
I’ve created a few favorite blends you may want to try using your neutral based spirit of choice:
- Orange Bitters – 6 parts orange peel, 1 part cinnamon, 1 part clove, 1 part star anise
- Coffee Bitters – 6 parts coffee bean, 2 parts vanilla, 1 part orange peel, 1 part calendula
- Cardamom-Rose Bitters – 6 parts cardamom, 6 parts rose, 2 parts vanilla, 1 part sage, 1 part calendula
- Lavender-Sage Bitters – 6 parts lavender, 5 parts sage, 2 parts wormwood, 1 part bay leaf
- Six Spice Bitters – equal parts clove, star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, orange peel and bittering agent such as dandelion or calendula
Once you have created your library of bitters, there are unlimited options for cocktail combinations. Try one (or all) of the following:
SIX SPICE OLD FASHIONED
The classic Old Fashioned is livened up with sweet spices, pairing perfectly with spicy rye whiskey.
1 dropper (approximately 10 drops) Six Spice Bitters
1 sugar cube
2 ounces rye whiskey
Place the sugar cube in the bottom of your mixing glass and saturate with bitters. Muddle the sugar cube and bitters before adding whiskey and filling with ice. Stir to chill and strain into a rocks glass with a single large cube.
Coffee and bourbon make magic when combined with the complex flavors of Meletti Amaro, demerara sugar, and pomegranate juice.
2 droppers (approximately 20 drops) Coffee Bitters
.25 ounces demerara simple syrup (equal parts demerara sugar and water)
.5 ounces pomegranate juice
1 ounce Meletti Amaro
2 ounces bourbon
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Briefly shake to chill before straining into a rocks glass with fresh ice.
Bitters aren’t just for whiskey and bourbon. Softer flavors, such as the Lavender-Sage blend are ideal for enhancing the botanical nature of gin.
2 droppers (approximately 20 drops) Lavender-Sage Bitters
.5 ounces gomme syrup (or simple syrup)
1 ounce dry vermouth
2 ounces Hendrick’s Gin
Combine ingredients in cocktail mixing glass, fill with ice and stir to chill. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a sage leaf and a few lavender buds.
Often overlooked for craft cocktails, tequila can be incredibly versatile—especially when you add cocktail bitters.
2 droppers (approximately 20 drops) Cardamom-Rose Bitters
1 ounce Art in the Age Rhubarb
1 ounce Jack Rudy Small Batch Grenadine
.5 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 ounce good-quality silver tequila
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake to chill and transfer to a rocks glass.
What a timely article. We have been experimenting with infusing our line of teas in liquors and combining with specialty bitters in cocktails. My current favorite is the “night cap”, which infuses “cozy chamomile” in tequila and combines with lime juice and lavender bitters for a drink that employs all the senses.
Great article! I’ll be trying some of these out. Good meeting you at the tasting event at the Ryman during Pollstar.
Thank you, Agustin.