The calendar marches on with great force even though I’m continually urging it to slow down. Unfortunately my pleas go unnoticed but I assure you you still have time to gift your family, friends or yourself with homemade bitters.
Last week I taught a room full of eager students how to make bitters. We all hudled around a table cluttered with little jars of infusions and with droppers in hand, each descended on various ingredients to create a custom blend of herbs and spices for the purpose of elevating their cocktails. There was cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Citrus, in all its various shades, sat next to dried cherry and raisin. Wormwood and Orris root provided some bitterness while vanilla, coffee and cocoa nib rounded it out. They smelled and tasted, added a few more ingredients and tasted again until they thought it perfect. They tested their final concoction with a simple champagne cocktail in which a sugar cube is drenched in bitters – classically Angostura, but tonight their own – then topped with champagne.
So let’s get right down to it because like I said, there’s not much time.
A bitters is essentially an alcoholic liquid flavored with different herb, spice and dried fruit infusions. Bitters are used in cocktail making as a way of creating a lovely, subtle additional layer of flavor. I once heard them described as “the salt of the cocktail” which I think helps to understand their value in a great cocktail.
The first step in making bitters at home is to make a variety of infusions. I like to make the infusions separately as opposed to mixing all the ingredients in one container of vodka (use a high-proof and odorless alcohol – I used a 100 proof vodka) because different ingredients take longer or shorter to infuse with the alcohol. Plus, I like feeling like a chemist and having a the fun of making dozens of different types of bitters. This is great for making gifts for the holidays or would make a great activity for a cocktail party.
So gather a variety of herbs, spices, dried fruit, etc. Most ingredients can be found at the grocery store – particularly in the bulk section. Some of the more exotic roots I ordered from a company called Mountain Rose Herbs. The roots are used to give the bitters – as the name suggests – a bitter taste. Dried citrus peel also adds bitterness so if you are wanting this for the holiday and don’t have time to order the roots, or simply don’t want to deal with it, just be sure to infuse some dried citrus peel so you’ll have that bitter component.
Add about a teaspoon of your ingredient to 4 ounces of vodka. If you are pressed for time you can add more of the spice or herb to speed up the process although this will taste different than a longer infusion would.
Cover the infusion tightly and set aside.
Knowing when the infusion is ready is really a job for your nose. You’ll notice a color change in the vodka almost immediately. As the days move on continually open the container and smell your infusion. When fully infused the vodka will smell strongly of the herb or spice and will taste heavily of that ingredient. For herbs and spices this will take about 7-10 days. If you are using dried fruit expect to let it sit for 2-3 weeks.
Once the infusions taste as you want them too you are ready to make bitters. Simply strain out the infused ingredients using a clean fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth. Replace the strained infusions back into their jars and begin mixing. Make sure everything you use in this process is very clean and sterilized.
Fill ⅓ of a small dropper bottle with distilled water. Using a pipet choose a selection of several infusions. If you want your bitters to be heavy in one infusion then add a whole pipet or two (roughly 1 tablespoon). The lesser flavors you want should only be added by a few drops.
I think it works best if you have a certain type of alcohol or cocktail in mind when creating the bitters. For example, my first adventure into bittering (pretty sure that’s not a word but it quite possibly should be) I had pear brandy on my mind so I created a bitters that was heavy in cinnamon, rosemary, nutmeg and juniper. There were other ingredients in there as well, as most bitters have somewhere between 10 – 30 different ingredients, but they were less pronounced.
And since we are making an accessory for cocktails I thought I’d also share with you a cocktail that needs some accessorizing.
from the Metropolitan Hotel, New York City circa 1935
1 cube sugar
bitters (classically Angostura)
Soak sugar cube with a couple of good splashes of bitters and set in the bottom of a large champagne flute.
Fill slowly with sparkling wine.
Garnish with a lemon twist.
Check out these other great resources on making your own bitters:
And if you find yourself with time in Portland take a class from Mark Bitterman at The Meadow – seriously.
A complete list the infusions I made:
Cinnamon, nutmeg, rosemary, coriander, cardamom, coffee, cocoa nib, vanilla, wormwood, orris root, qassia bark, ginger, juniper, allspice, red chile, black pepper, celery seed, dried orange peel, dried lemon peel, dried lime peel, raisin, dried cherry,
And a few supplies: