how to make cocktail bitters
Photo: Bespoke Post

Bitters. The salt and pepper of bartending. To the cocktail novice, these little bottles can seem like an afterthought, but deprive most drinks of a drop or two, and the difference is startling. To paraphrase the folks at Death & Co., the right bitters bind the other ingredients together, and elevate the entire drink.

Unlike salt and pepper, you can actually make bitters at home. And better yet, just about anything goes. You want to put some of your grandmother’s prunes in there? Have at it. Some leftover cilantro in your fridge? Give it a shot. Maybe yours won’t be good for every application, but it’s hard to screw up bitters entirely.

They don’t make themselves though, so let’s get started.

Making Bitters at Home

Degree of difficulty: Medium.

Definition: A spirit flavored with pungent plant extracts; basically, a bitter tincture.

The base: Unlike our DIY gin, where we needed to use a decent vodka as the base, here we have no such restriction. Since you’ll only be using a dash or two at a time of your finished product, the quality of the base is less essential. A grain alcohol like Everclear is the play here, because its high ABV provides maximum flavor extraction.

The enhancements: Much like our DIY vermouth, you’ve got a whole larder of aromatics, herbs and spices from which to choose. Unlike vermouth, however, bitterness is key, and that’s where obscure ingredients like orris root, gentian root, and cinchona bark (you can find these on Amazon or at specialty health food stores) come in. Don’t be afraid to use three or more bittering agents.

From there, you want to create a real depth of flavor with baking spices, natural sweetness and citrus peel. Vanilla nearly always works well, as does dark, dried fruit and fresh herbs. Dried hops and coffee beans pack a wallop of flavor in addition to, you guessed it, bitterness. If you have access to a farmers market, you could even shop around for dandelion greens, radicchio and other bitter greens.

The method: There are two major steps here, with a lot of waiting in between. You’ll first add all your ingredients to a jar, then exile it to a cool spot, shaking it every day or two. After two weeks, you’ll strain it and cook the solids in water for an extra round of extraction (and some dilution). Add a little sweetness, then bottle in small dropper jars.

Sample Bitters Recipe

2 cups Everclear
1 tsp gentian
2 tbsp cinchona bark
1 tsp orris root
¼ cup raisins
1 tbsp coffee beans
1 tsp peppercorns
½ vanilla bean
Peel from 1 grapefruit
Peel from 1 lemon
1 tbsp hops
1 tsp allspice berries
1 tsp whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 sprig sage
¼ cup simple syrup

Combine all ingredients (except simple syrup) in a large mason jar. Shake vigorously, and place in refrigerator or cool, dark place. Let steep for at least two weeks, shaking every day or two. Strain mixture through cheesecloth, reserving both the solids and the alcohol. Add solids to saucepan with 2 cups filtered water, bring to boil and allow the mixture to cool. Strain again, and add the new liquid to the alcohol. Stir in simple syrup. Divide into dropper bottles.

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