There’s no question that in this new renaissance age of craft beer and craft cocktails there is an unyielding desire to do everything yourself…at least once. I decided that I would try my hand at making bitters. Bitters are to cocktails as spices are to cooking. They may be very minimal as far as the amount used by volume, but their impact is profound.
With food, you can take a simple dish like Chicken Fettucine Alfredo and change the flavor completely by adding a few shakes of Cajun seasoning. You’ve essentially made a brand-new dish using the same components just by adding seasoning.
Bitters can do the same. Lately, my cocktail of choice has been a whiskey sour with egg white and a ginger syrup. I always throw a few dashes of bitters into the cocktail and different bitters have yielded wildly-different results. I’ve used Angostura, Bittercube Cherry Bark, and Bittercube Blackstrap and each has given me a new experience.
As a bartender and homebrewer, I was inspired and decided to try my hand at making my own, so like any reasonable person would do — I Googled it!
The process is fairly simple — simply steep an ingredient in high-proof alcohol and wait a while. One site recommended creating individual extracts from each ingredients called “tinctures” and then blending them together to create recipes. Then once you’ve gotten used to the process, you can begin creating the bitters in one big batch with everything together. I figured that sounded pretty reasonable, so that’s what I did.
Before I get into it, remember to follow me on Twitter: @TCBeerDude
Step 1: Pick Your Ingredients
Go Wild! This is your chance to really experiment with very little risk. You might include some bittering agents such as Cherry Bark or Gentian root (available online). I didn’t think those were entirely necessary with the use of the dark rum as a base, but neutral spirits might need it. I recommend lots of earthy and flavorful spices, citrus peel, dried fruit, herbs, and nuts. Here are some examples:
Bittering Agents: Cherry Bark, Gentian Root
Citrus: Orange, Lemon, or Grapefruit Peel
Spices: Cardamon, Clove, Fennel Seed, Peppercorns, Aniseed, Coriander, All Spice Berry, Caraway
Flowers/Misc: Ginger Root, Lemongrass, Hops, Hibiscus, Lavender
Nuts: Toasted Almonds, Toasted Walnuts
For dried spices like peppercorns, coriander, or all spice berries, crack them open by pressing on them with the side of a knife. I peeled the skin off the ginger root first and then shaved the raw ginger into strips using a peeler e for optimal surface area through which to extract the most flavor.
Step 2: Measure Into Jars
Measure out each ingredient into mason jars while keeping track of the amount of the ingredients by weight. The actual amount doesn’t matter all that much, but will be useful later for developing recipes for the blends. You should put just enough liquor to cover the ingredients and cram as much of the ingredients into the liquor as possible. On my first run, each tincture tasted great individually, but the flavors weren’t strong enough when blended, so make sure to get a lot of your ingredients in there.
Add your liquor. I used Bacardi 151 for the sake of consistency. I know that 151 is always available at almost any liquor store. The rum itself will add some flavor and I’m okay with that. You can use any alcohol above 50% liquor (100 proof). Alcohol is a solvent, so it extracts and absorbs flavors from your ingredients. For a cleaner flavor, use a clear liquor instead of brown liquors.
Be sure to write down the amount of liquor you put into each jar as well. That will help to make the ratios correct when we do blends later. Label your jars, seal them and then wait.
Step 3: Wait 2 Weeks
Some sites recommended checking each ingredient every day to see when it had finished. Knowing that I was going to be making blends of these ingredients, I wanted to see how they would perform after all hanging out for the same duration. They all did fine hanging out for 2 weeks. Give them a shake every couple of days as well just to be sure to get maximum yield of flavors.
Step 4: Strain
After 7 days, strain your bitters, clean out the jars, and fill hem back up into their properly-labeled jars. For the dried fruit or any other ingredients that may have absorbed the rum, use a spatula to squeeze out as much liquid as you can. At this point, you can taste your bitters. The best way is to put a drop on the back of your hand and then lick that off. This should allow for the high alcohol to dissipate and let the ingredients shine through. If you don’t want to waste the ingredients, save the herbs to make a bread. The herbs should still have significant flavor and are now infused with rum.
Step 5: Develop Your Recipes
This is the fun part where you get to taste and experiment with your final product. To come up with a recipe, you’re going to be mixing drops of these into an 8oz glass of water. Add drops and keep track of how much you’ve used. Once you have a good mix of flavors, you will be able to create a larger batch using the ratios you come up with.
Experiment and have fun. Bitters usually use a lot of different ingredients, so experiment all across the board. You can also use infused syrups to sweeten the mixture if you like your bitters to add some sweetness too. You only need an eyedropper or two in a cocktail, so these bitters should last you a good, long while.