Thanks to Don Draper and a resurged popularity of old-school cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan, bitters are all the rage. We've put together a little primer all about bitters and how they can help you seriously up your cocktail game—particularly if you're ready to take on making them at home.
What are Bitters?
Bitters are ultra concentrated liquid extracts. They're similar to the vanilla extract you use in baking, except they use other kinds of seeds, herbs, flowers, roots, etc. to achieve their herbal (and, yes, bitter) flavor. These pre-Prohibition-style tinctures are mainly used in cocktails, where just a dash can add a sophisticated, nuanced flavor to an otherwise unexciting drink.
The most common bitter is Angostura: name-brand aromatic bitters made up of a laundry list of ingredients that, confusingly, doesn't actually include Angostura bark, but does include a bitter root called gentian.
How to Make Your Own Bitters
True booze hounds—or anyone looking to really impress their dinner party guests—should absolutely try making bitters at home, since this method can be adapted to limitless flavor combos that simply can't be found in stores.
You'll need bittering agents, aromatics, and alcohol.
Bittering agents can include various edible roots, such as burdock and licorice root, and barks such as sasparilla and wild cherry bark.
Aromatics can include everything from fruit peels and dried fruit, to herbs such as mint, rosemary, and sage, to all kinds of spices. You can even use coffee beans and toasted nuts.
Many botanical ingredients common in bitters—gentian bark, juniper berries, peppercorns, star anise, etc.—can't be purchased at your corner grocery store. Make it easy and buy them online someplace like Mountain Rose Herbs (which only sells organic, which is a major plus).
The alcohol should be heavy duty: think 100 proof (or 50 percent alcohol-by-volume, or ABV), at least. Vodka and grain alcohol (such as Everclear) have the cleanest flavor, though bourbon, rye, or rum can make for interesting spinoffs. No need to buy anything fancy—a brand like Smirnoff will do just fine.
To create your own signature blend, you'll want to experiment with flavor combinations that sound good to you. To get you started, here's a very simple recipe from our friends at Martha Stewart:
There are several methods for making bitters. The recipe above combines all ingredients at once; I prefer infusing the botanicals individually and then blending the tinctures together at the end to suit your taste.
Step 1: In small jars, put one spice/herb/fruit/etc. at the bottom—one to two teaspoons, coarsely chopped—and cover with about 4 oz. of alcohol. Cover the jar tightly, and don't forget to label what's inside!
Step 2: Shake the jar once a day to swirl the ingredients. Taste and/or smell the infusion daily—some ingredients will be infused within that first week, others may take several weeks. To taste the tincture as it ages, add a few drops to some sparkling water. If you taste it directly, the flavor will be very intense, and it's hard to judge if it tastes good or not.
Step 3: When the mixture is ready, strain through a cheesecloth. Then use a medicine-type dropper (or buy those trendy little apothecary bottles with droppers here) to combine flavors.
A Few Tips
Keep in a cool, dry place, and your mixtures should last indefinitely.
It's not recommended that you try these recipes without the alcohol—the result won't have a lasting shelf life and won't taste good either. If you're looking for a mocktail that's entirely alcohol-free, we recommend trying a vinegar-based shrub (like this one) instead.
How to Use Your Bitters
OK, so you've invested the time in making your own bitters. Now what?
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