Brew a Batch of Better Bitters
Local mixologist on how to spice up your home bar kit
By Kendyl MeadowsPublished October 25, 2012
My first encounter with bitters went something like this: I stepped up to the surly bartender at a local dive bar, new to cocktails (well, drinking in general) and panicked.
Much to my friends’ dismay, I announced, “I will have an Old Fashioned, please!”
I knew nothing about the drink other than a) it was retro, a characteristic for which I have always had a decided penchant, and b) it had whiskey in it. What was served to me was a far cry from the classic Old Fashioned I proudly mix today, but despite its suspended chunks of orange flesh, packet of white sugar, alarmingly-colored pulverized cherry, and heaping scoop of pelletized ice, something about it struck a chord with me. I sipped it down and ordered another. After that, things get fuzzy ...
As it turns out, it was the Angostura Bitters (standardly featured in drinks such as the aforementioned Old Fashioned and the Manhattan) that I fell in love with that night. Like most cocktail bitters, its bold, aromatic flavors can completely transform a blasé beverage into something complex and intriguing.
I soon learned, of course, that bitters had been around long before my discovery. Before the turn of the 18th century, the various medicines and tonics that make up the predecessors to modern cocktail bitters were consumed on their own. Thought to be a common cure-all for a wide array of maladies, they began showing up in alcoholic beverages, presumably to cover up the absolutely vile-tasting spirits to which the common man had access at that time. And, when diluted even the tiniest bit, the taste of bitters themselves could be immensely improved. Toning down the overwhelming flavors, mixing bitters into beverages allowed for individual spices and botanicals to emerge. It was a win for everyone, from the pharmacies and apothecaries that produced them, to the bartenders now able to disguise inferior booze, to the poor schmucks who were just happy to drink. The use of bitters in bars and taverns stuck, and continues to this day.
Not long after buying my first bottle of Angostura, I discovered that there was more than one kind of bitters. In fact, it seemed as though I was hearing about a new brand or flavor every day. It is increasingly common to find bars that carry at least a handful. Even amidst this explosion of popularity, it is Angostura that remains the top-selling and most widely available brand of cocktail bitters in the world, a must-have mélange of clove and allspice with a garish bitterness and mahogany-toned hue. I would also recommend snagging a bottle of Peychaud’s Bitters, another classic variety (around since 1838). More mild and floral in flavor (but still bitter!), Peychaud’s imparts a lovely, pinkish color. I find that I like using Angostura in darker liquors, particularly whiskey, while Peychaud’s shines in gin.
You can also make your own bitters with a degree of ease and some DIY spirit. Bitters require nothing but a few odd ingredients, patience, and a sense of adventure. Commercial and homemade bitters both start out as a base for various bittering agents (barks, chips, powders, and roots) and high-proof alcohol. From there, any flavor can be incorporated: fruit peels, spices, botanicals, woods ... the possibilities are endless.
I always opt for the highest-proof grain alcohol I can get my hands on, finding Everclear to be the most effective in extracting desired qualities from ingredients. Its own taste remains neutral despite the strength of the spirit, which makes it the most versatile. Higher-proof rums and whiskies can be used as well, and will add their own personality to a batch. A single bottle will do, as you will only need a few cups at a time. While Penzey’s or North Market Spices are great places to start browsing for interesting flavor combinations or exotic spices, I haven’t been able to find a reliable local source for the necessary bitter ingredients. The three most common of these are quassia, cinchona bark, and gentian root, which can all be purchased through numerous online retailers and aren’t terribly expensive. There is no special equipment required other than two jars, a funnel, a spice grinder, and cheesecloth or coffee filters. Ready?
The basic steps are fairly simple: pour the alcohol over the solid ingredients, allow them to steep for two to three weeks (shaking them every day), then strain out the liquid and add a sweetening agent. Here, I will share the recipe for orange bitters I use, adapted from bartending legend Gary Regan:
2 cups Everclear (or another high-proof alcohol of your choice)
1 heaping teaspoon of quassia bark
1 tsp. gentian root
1/2 tsp. cinchona bark (powdered)
3/4 tsp. coriander seeds
1 star anise pod
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cardamom pods
1/2 tsp. fresh-grated nutmeg
8 oz. dried orange peel
1/4 tsp. orange flower water (optional)
4 1/2 cups of water
1 cup turbinado sugar
Briefly pulse the quassia bark and gentian in your spice grinder. This is just to break things up a bit, don’t pulverize them. Press the cardamom pods, anise, and coriander seeds with a mortar and pestle, muddler, or whatever blunt instrument you have on hand. Place the orange peel in a pestle or small bowl, add the orange flower water, and lightly press to release their oils. Combine all but the water and sugar in a quart-size mason jar. Let stand for at least two weeks. Be sure to remember to shake it every day. After two weeks, separate the dry ingredients from the liquid by using a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Set the liquid aside. In a saucepan, bring the water and dry ingredients to a rolling boil. Cover, then let simmer for 8 minutes. Add the sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Separate the solid ingredients again, and combine the two liquids together. Let stand for a week, and then add the remaining 1/2 cup of water. You may have to strain your liquid through finer cheesecloth or coffee filters to remove the last of any sediment.
Congratulations! You have bitters! You can use this formula as a starting point to add your own ratios or other herbs, fruit, teas, or flowers. I find that when using more delicate botanicals like flowers or fruit, it is best to reserve part of the alcohol and macerate them in their own container for less time, just a little over a week. This way, they don’t become overwhelming, as you can add only as much as you deem necessary to the final formula. Don’t be scared to experiment. Once you harvest your first bounty, mix up a few tipples featuring your new bitters. Cheers, and good luck!