Got the itch of a true cocktailian? Then you’ve no doubt wondered how to make a batch of bitters.
The little dropper bottles filled with the essence of various uncommon roots, barks and spices are like a time warp back to the good old days of drinking. Those years when pre-Prohibition bartenders like Jerry Thomas made just about everything that went into their cocktails from scratch. It’s an idea many bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts have adopted once again.
The beauty of bitters is similar to that of salt and pepper. A drink may be simply good without them, but with a dash or two of bitters, it’s transformed. Consider the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac. These three drinks have made their mark in the cocktail hall of fame for one big reason: Angostura Bitters and Peychaud’s Bitters, both the perfect finishing touch.
But bitters aren’t used solely as a cocktail seasoning. Over the past two centuries, the elixir has taken various forms and served—or tried to serve—a variety of purposes. In the 1960s, in an effort to make itself a household name, Angostura Bitters released a cookbook that included recipes made with its bitters (There are even a few on its website).
Long before that, in the 19th century, bitters were used as medicine. Most famously, before Prohibition, brands like Peychaud’s and Boker’s were used to help “cure” ailments like digestive issues, blood disorders and liver problems. Those prescriptions didn’t exactly work—to the chagrin of the doctors handing them out.
Luckily, a few of these old-time brands that shaped the evolution of the craft cocktail are still around, as are dozens of new brands with an equally quality product.
Sure, it’s easy to go to a liquor or grocery store and purchase a bottle of Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Bitters, The Bitter Truth or Bittermens. But it’s awfully handy for anyone interested in making drinks or imbibing to know how bitters are made and what goes into them. Plus, knowing what each element of a cocktail tastes like helps demystify the complexity of a finished cocktail that much more.
Making bitters is no more difficult than many of the concoctions bartenders have been known to whip up from scratch, like marmalade, orgeat and tonic. Much of the process consists of waiting while the ingredients steep in high-proof liquor. To start the process, you’ll need:
- Two 1-quart Jars
- High-proof spirit (typically vodka or whiskey)
- Roots, herbs, spices and other flavorings
When choosing the type of spirit as your bitters base, consider what the end flavor will be, as well as the types of cocktails the bitters will be used in. For light, fruity drinks, go with vodka. For Manhattans and other whiskey or rum-based drinks, choose a dark spirit. Then, all that’s left is to decide what to flavor the bitters with.
Brad Thomas Parsons’ Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All is a great place to start gleaning basic ideas and quantities, like in these Apple Bitters and Pear Bitters. A few combinations we’ve found to be successful are dried cherries and coffee beans, hops and grapefruit peel, and lemon peel and peppercorns.
Many recipes call for unusual bitter roots and barks, which can be hard to find outside of a city with a specialty market. These include: gentian, a super-bitter root that’s also found in Angostura and many other flavored and aromatic bitters; cinchona bark, which contains quinine and is also used in making tonic; and cassia chips, a bark that’s part of the cinnamon family. To find these ingredients online, try Kalustyan’s, Mountain Rose Herbs or Amazon.
Other more common kitchen spices that are used to flavor bitters include anything from star anise, cardamom and peppercorns to lemongrass and juniper berries.
Once all of the freaky roots, spices and other flavorings are gathered, it’s time to embark on the mostly hands-off process of making bitters. Though it varies somewhat from recipe to recipe, this is a generally fool-proof guide.
Step 1: Steeping
Combine all the spices, roots, barks and other flavorings to a jar and add in the high-proof spirit. This will sit for about two weeks and will need to be shaken daily to ensure the flavors infuse properly and evenly.
Step 2: Strain & Cook
Strain the spirit into a clean jar using cheesecloth, then seal. Heat solids on the stove with water and then put that entire mixture (water and vodka-soaked ingredients) into a separate jar. Let that sit for one week.
Step 3: Combine & Sweeten
Strain out the solids, discard and combine the infused vodka with the water. If the liquid is still murky, strain it again through cheesecloth. (It’s common to have a little sediment remain.) The last step is to add a bit of sweetener, if needed, to make the mixture more palatable, as it will be incredibly bitter. Depending on the flavor of the bitters, use a rich simple syrup (two parts turbinado sugar to one part water), honey, molasses or maple syrup. Once added, shake it until the sweetener is fully dissolved and let it sit for another three days. Finally, the bitters are ready to bottle.
Now, after about a month of mostly passive preparation, all that’s left to do is bottle the bitters. One-, two- and four-ounce dropper bottles can also be easily found on Amazon or at medical supply stores. And, if you want to get really fancy, Cocktail Kingdom has various pro-style bottles that give the perfect dash of aroma to drinks.
As for labeling the bitters, some prefer the super-homemade approach, as you can see above. But for those who would rather have a more polished final product, Evermine and Vistaprint sell customizable labels in all colors and sizes.
Now it’s time to use the bitters in cocktails, on ice cream or in any variety of recipes. You could even try to cure a cold with them, though that effort would probably be in vain.