One of the most rewarding things to come out of the craft mixology movement is the rising popularity of homemade cocktail ingredients. Thanks to an abundance of previously esoteric tools and herbs, it has become possible for the home bartender to make nearly every element of their favorite drinks right in the kitchen. There’s something satisfying about whipping up a cocktail and knowing exactly, to the last drop, what went into making it.
Perhaps the most versatile, dynamic, and just plain useful ingredients you can start with are homemade bitters. They consist of a high-proof spirit, herbs, fruit, or other flavorings, and bittering agents, and as a result have nearly endless permutations. The process of making your own is actually pretty simple, but can take a lifetime to master.
To make your own bitters, you’ll need:
– A high-proof spirit of your choosing, ideally around 75% ABV and up
– Herbs, spices, or fruits for flavoring
– A bittering agent, like gentian root, cinchona bark, or wormwood
– Two Mason jars
– Dropper bottles or dasher bottles
Choosing the Spirit
While any variety of high-proof spirit is technically acceptable, the standard choices are neutral grain alcohol, vodka, or whiskey. If you’re planning to use the bitters primarily in lighter, fruitier drinks, a neutral spirit or vodka is probably a better call as it’s less likely to overpower the other flavors. If you’re looking to spice up your Manhattans or Old-Fashioneds, though, a high-proof whiskey works nicely as a base.
Choosing the Flavoring
This is the element that allows bitters to have truly limitless variations. You can use pretty much anything edible, but some good choices for beginners are things like orange peel, vanilla bean, cocoa nibs, coffee, nutmeg, cardamom, or chilies. Play around with your favorite herbs and spices, but remember this: always use more than one flavoring ingredient! Until you mix things up you’re basically just making an extract, so think about what flavors might complement each other well. From the above list, for example, coca nibs and chilies go great together. If you’re stumped, or just looking to branch out, we highly recommend the book Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons.
Choosing the Bittering Agent
Typically, you’ll be faced with fewer options when it comes to the bittering agent. It’s a fundamentally necessary ingredient, though, as otherwise the infusion you’re concocting is little more than a bottle of mild flavor droplets. We recommend three classic choices: gentian root, an herb that grows in the Himalayas and is used in Angostura bitters; cinchona bark, which contains quinine and is used to make tonic water; and wormwood, traditionally used to flavor vermouth and absinthe. If you have trouble finding any of these (and they can certainly be hard to track down), check out online specialty shops like Tenzing Momo.
1 – Maceration
In this context, maceration is basically just steeping. In your Mason jar, combine all of the flavoring and bittering agents with your spirit of choice. Let this sit for about two weeks, shaking daily to ensure even flavor extraction.
2 – Straining
Once the infusion has finished steeping, use the cheesecloth to strain the spirit into your second jar. Seal this and set it aside. Place the solids in a pot along with some water and simmer on the stove for about ten minutes, then let cool. Pour this solids-water mixture back into the original jar and seal, then allow it to sit for another week, shaking daily.
3 – Combining
Strain out the solids, discard them, and combine the infused water with the spirit. Optionally, you can add a little bit of simple syrup or other sweetener to soften the bitters during this step, but depending on the flavors you used (especially if they included dried fruit) it may not be necessary. Allow this to sit for about three more days.
4 – Bottling
Skim any residue off the surface of the bitters and transfer them to your bottles. Dropper bottles and dasher bottles are equally good, and if you’re looking for something really snazzy we recommend the ones at Cocktail Kingdom.
– Use a kitchen scale to measure each ingredient by weight. Making bitters is definitely a process of trial and error, and knowing exactly how much of each ingredient you used will be hugely helpful when you want to make adjustments.
– When tasting the bitters, try them either in some club soda or in a cocktail recipe you know well. The individual flavors can be difficult to parse when you taste them straight. Alternatively, you can put a couple of drops in your palm, rub your hands together and cup them around your nose to get a sense of the aromas.
– Don’t make too much of your first few batches of bitters, because you don’t want to be stuck with a quart of something that didn’t turn out quite like you’d hoped. Most recipes you find can be cut down by at least half.
– Most importantly, don’t be afraid to experiment!
Photo: Scott Schiller on Flickr