Can’t Find a Bitter Man
Historically, bitters have served cocktails as salt has cooking. Just one or two drops can heighten all the other flavors in the mix, while a lack can leave even an otherwise balanced cocktail flat, bland and without direction. Recently, however, boozy drinks have enjoyed a surge in popularity, and by extension, so have bitters. With new and more exotic recipes on shelves everyday, bitters are more than just a seasoning; they’ve become cocktail muses. The Bitter Truth’s celery bitters have certainly swayed me towards a Bloody Mary in lieu of a Martini on more than one occasion, and just the sight of Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters inspired a whole night of cocktail creation – obviously followed by an entire day of recovery and regret.
Now, on some level, I think I equated that – the mother of all hangovers – with the purchase of artisanal bitters. So I bypassed that purchasing phase and began making my own. Is the logic sound? Of course not, but I did it anyway, and with some success. A smarter man would make homemade bitters for one of two reasons, and they sure as hell aren’t to save money. This month-long undertaking, which requires expensive ingredients, is for those that want subtle and unique additions to truly personalized cocktails, or if you live in Brooklyn, you simply aren’t cool until you have a hobby that revolves around vinyl, domestic alcohol production or the acquisition of vintage Pabst Blue Ribbon swag.
So if you’re still interested, the sky is the limit: orange bitters, strawberry rhubarb bitters, or if you’re as completely ridiculous as me, a vintage bitters made from branches of your family’s Christmas tree each year (a lovely addition to most gin-based drinks). Now this is what you’ll need to get started:
•Mason jars or thoroughly cleaned wine bottles
•About 3 cups (one 750ml bottle) of a base spirit
•A grand total of about 4oz of bittering agents
•Whatever spice, fruit, herb or other flavoring you want
•A month’s time
This is what you will infuse with delicious bitter flavor. It must be high proof. The higher the proof, the easier, faster and more complete the infusion. The first thing that comes to mind is my old foe, the bane of my early college years, grain alcohol. This jungle juice staple is actually as close to a perfect maceration stimulator as can be found; it has no real flavor of its own, the end product will turn a pretty hue of light red to dark amber, and the sky-high alcohol will leach out all the bitter compounds from whatever ingredients you choose. Plus, it’s cheap.
My favorite, and maybe this is because I consider whiskey a food group, is Wild Turkey 101 rye. The proof leaves a little to be desired, but the whiskey adds a ton of depth to your bitters, giving them the frame of a prizefighter, to which Everclear-based bitters feel dainty. Not to mention that the inherent spice of the rye seems to give bitters synergy. I find the best of both worlds is to make a large batch of a bitter base with Wild Turkey 101 Rye and then macerate smaller batches of headlining flavors (e.g. oranges in the case of orange bitters) separately in grain alcohol and mix the two. This yields bitters with a sturdy base and optimal infusion of the flavor you want to highlight.
The possibilities for flavoring bitters are endless, but all recipes have one thing in common: they’re bitter. You need to begin your homemade bitters by starting a bitter base. Get out a Mason jar or wine bottle and fill two thirds of it with the Wild Turkey 101 Rye. The rest is really up to you. While there are thousands of herbs you can use – basically, if it’s unpleasant to chew on, it will work – the OGs of the bittering game are gentian root, a flowering plant used as a natural pesticide; quassia wood, the main flavoring agent in tonic water and a natural pesticide; and wormwood, the infamous ingredient in absinthe, and yes, a natural pesticide. Bugs may not like them, but toast equal parts of these herbs in a frying pan until they become aromatic and you have the beginnings of the perfect cocktail accessory. Fill up the remainder of the bottle with the herbs, cork it and leave it, shaking occasionally. After two weeks check the mixture by taste, but it will likely need another week or two. Other bittering agents that are commonly used are milk thistle seeds (also excellent for hangovers), calamus root, black walnut leaf and chamomile. Personally, I would use chamomile only if using a grain-alcohol base. If you don’t use super-high alcohol with this sleepytime-tea favorite, the resulting spirit will taste muddy instead of bitter. Also, throw in a cinnamon stick and two pods of star anise for good measure in all batches.
If you were going for a solid, simple house bitters, then you’re done. But this is the stage where you can really be creative. The directions are simple: fill up another container halfway with grain alcohol and the rest with whatever you want and let sit for two weeks.
•Orange bitters: Peel the most under-ripe oranges you can find, wave the peels briefly (like four seconds) over an open flame and throw them in the bottle.
•Cherry Lavender: Fill up the bottle with mostly cherries and some lavender. If you like your bitters, well, more bitter, just use the cherry pits.
•Spicy blends: More cinnamon and anise, peppercorns, caraway, fennel seed, maybe a slice of Serrano pepper, or whatever you want. Word to the wise: ginger is always an incredible addition, but you only need a little bit.
•Apple Cardamom Rose: A couple apple cores, a tablespoon of briefly-toasted cardamom pods and a handful of rose petals. You’re welcome.
After both the base and the headliner are done macerating, mix them to taste (usually about three quarters base and one quarter headliner). That’s it. Make a lot of base and a lot of smaller batches of headliners to fill out your collection.
I recommend Starwest Botanicals for an ingredient source. Never use powdered ingredients.