After our visit to Thistle, in McMinnville, a few years ago, I came home sort of obsessed with bitters and delicious craft cocktails. Apparently there was an entire craft cocktail revolution going on and it didn’t take me long to find the awesome book, Bitters, A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas, by Brad Thomas Parsons, which I’ve mentioned before in a post I wrote about My Perfect Manhattan. I bought the book for Greg because he’s really the cocktail guru in our house. It has wonderful cocktail recipes, fun history about bitters and great tips for using different bitters in drinks.
But my favorite part of this book, the one I’ve used the most, is the section full of recipes for homemade bitters.
Although they’ve been around for centuries, bitters have made a huge comeback in the last decade. They are high alcohol infusions of bitter ingredients, such as gentian root, and flavor ingredients, such as citrus, used to add aromatic flavors to cocktails. And they do add amazing layers of flavors to your cocktails. I would argue they are a necessary ingredient to making great cocktails; they are the seasonings, the salt and pepper. They help make your cocktail one you want to drink again, one you can’t get out of your head.
Think of it this way, why drink a bloody mary without the horseradish and tabasco, a gin and tonic without the lime? It’s like Béarnaise sauce without the tarragon, or more simply, potatoes without salt. Bland, boring, unremarkable. Forgettable. And I’m not living this life to eat and drink the forgettable, I’m in it to find those menu items I want to devour again and again, the ones that make me want to lick my plate, or in this case, think, that cocktail was delicious!
Some of our favorite bitters are grapefruit, Meyer lemon, Angostura, celery, and orange. Greg also really likes the Creole, but to me that one tastes too much like cough syrup. A fun way to taste the subtle differences in them is to pour some soda water over ice, stir in a few drops of bitters and taste. Or if you feel like being fancy, get several champagne glasses, put a sugar cube in each one, drop a few drops of your different bitters on the sugar cubes, pour the champagne over and enjoy.
There’s a huge selection of bitters available for purchase, rhubarb, kale, Meyer lemon, coffee, orange, lavender. If you can imagine the flavor, it’s probably out there. Many grocery stores, liquor stores, and gourmet markets sell them, but the fun for me is in making my own. Mostly because, as someone who loves to play and experiment in the kitchen, making homemade bitters is an enjoyable challenge. Also, I’m egotistical enough to think I can create a better version than what I can buy on the shelf.
The process of making them is easy, but they can take up to five weeks before they are ready to be used in cocktails. It involves a lot of waiting, but the wait is so, so worth it. I’ve made grapefruit, Meyer lemon and orange bitters. Orange is probably the one we use most frequently because it has a simple flavor profile and it goes with a variety of liquors like bourbon, rye, gin and many aperitifs. It’s a great first one to try if you want to make your own.
A lovely bonus about making bitters is the way the kitchen smells while doing the first few steps, zesting lemons and oranges, drying citrus peel on low heat in your oven, measuring ingredients like cardamon pods, allspice berries, gentian root, coriander. Mmmm, it’s like homemade aromatherapy, delicious, therapeutic, sensory opening.
If you make a batch now, you’ll have them just in time for all of your holiday cocktails. You can also put some in little bottles or jars and give them as gifts.
- Zest of 3 oranges, cut into strips with a paring knife
- 1/4 cup chopped dried orange peel (recipe follows)
- 4 cloves
- 8 green cardamom pods, cracked
- 1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon gentian root
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice berries
- 2 cups high-proof vodka, or more as needed
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons rich syrup, or simple syrup
- Place all of the ingredients except for the vodka, water, and rich syrup in a quart-sized Mason jar or other large glass container with a lid. Pour in the 2 cups of vodka, adding more if necessary so that all the ingredients are covered. Seal the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks, shaking the jar once a day.
- After 2 weeks strain the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized jar to remove the solids. Repeat until all the sediment has been filtered out. Squeeze the cheesecloth over the jar to release any excess liquid and transfer the solids to a small saucepan. Cover the jar and set aside. (You will use this original vodka liquid again in step 5.)
- Cover the solids in the sauce pan with the water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover the saucepan, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool completely. Once cooled, add the contents of the saucepan (both liquid and solids) to another quart-sized Mason jar. Cover the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 1 week, shaking the jar daily.
- After 1 week, strain the jar with the liquid and solids through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized Mason jar. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Discard the solids. Add this liquid to the jar containing the original vodka solution.
- Add the rich syrup to the solution and stir to incorporate, then cover and give the jar a shake to fully dissolve.
- Allow the mixture to stand at room temperature for 3 days. At the end of the 3 days, skim off any debris that floats to the surface and pour the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined funnel one last time to remove any solids.
- Using a funnel, decant the bitters into smaller jars and label. If there's any sediment left in the bottles, or if the liquid is cloudy, give the bottle a shake before using. The bitters will last indefinitely, but for optimum flavor, use within a year.
- This recipe makes almost 20 ounces of bitters.
- 3 grapefruit, 8 lemons, 8 limes, or 6 oranges
- Preheat the oven to 200ºF. Wash and dry the fruit. Peel off the zest in long strips using a zester or paring knife. Finely chop the zest strips. Spread the chopped zest on a baking sheet and put it in the oven until dried, at least 30 minutes. Can take up to an hour. Store in an airtight container.