You almost hate to hear it: Making your own bitters at home? Yeah, it's actually not that difficult.
Because there's no excuse now -- and you start to think, how could I not have been doing this all along? Ideas for black cherry-ginger, or coffee bean-cocoa nib bitters rush in.
If you're tapped in to the cocktail zeitgeist, odds are you already have bitters on the brain. (If you're not, here's what you need to know: Classic cocktails? Having a major moment. Housemade ingredients? Huge. Bitters? Über retro-chic.) So you can imagine the on-trend factor of housemade bitters, and the cocktails made with them.
"They're a kind of late-blooming extension of the classic cocktail trend that peaked about five years ago, and the more widespread grassroots, farm-to-table phenomenon that's taken place in the industry more recently," explains Dan Carlson, bartender at New York restaurant Saul. Bitters, essentially a highly concentrated mixture of spirits and aromatic ingredients, act as "a kind of nuanced seasoning that galvanizes the flavor profile of a cocktail recipe." And while they have long since played a role in the craft of making cocktails -- the still widely popular brand Angostura dates back to 1824 -- the resurgence of the classic cocktail has pushed bitters out of the old folks' home and given them a whole new wardrobe at that.
At Saul, and its sister establishment The Vanderbilt, you'll find housemade bitters without boundaries: Saigon cinnamon and walnut; strawberry and Indian fennel. "When you make your own bitters you have the freedom to choose what kind of flavor combinations you'd like to anchor your recipes around. You come to respect each ingredient more fully and understand how they can act in harmony and discord with others," Dan remarks.
OK, so let's backtrack for a second. Because "not that difficult" is not to say that there isn't still some work involved -- think of making your own bitters as a sort of science project for the card-carrying cocktail geek. Is sourcing ingredients like quassia bark and gentian going to be a bit of a challenge? Sure. But consider this: One "starter" batch of bitters could easily last the average home bartender a year.
You just need to go in knowing that it's going to require some patience, and accept that it might not work out exactly as you anticipated. As Dan is quick to note, "It might sound silly, but I think you need to remind yourself that you're doing this because it's fun, and there is an element of risk involved."
- Maryse Chevriere, The Daily Meal
Dan advises that first-timers should start out by making a large batch of "base" bitters that you can divide up into smaller quantities and experiment with. "If you were cooking you might think of it as a kind of master sauce that you could add to then tweak." Recipe: Saigon Cinnamon & Walnut Bitters
Sourcing some of the more obscure ingredients, like gentian and quassia bark, can be one of the bigger challenges in making bitters at home. Dan recommends looking for them in medicinal herb shops and apothecaries (like Flower Power in New York's East Village), or online at sites like Starwest Botanicals. As for the fruits, spices, and more common herbs, he says you don't have to look further than your local farmers' market. "Just keep in mind that you'll have to dry out the herbs, fruits and their peels." Related: How to Revive Spices
For the neutral grain spirits base, Dan likes to use Polmos' 192-proof Spirytus Rektyfikowany, which he found at his local liquor store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Though he says any high-proof vodka works too -- higher proof spirits are best for extracting flavors. Related: America's Bitterest Brews
All of the aromatics and spirits get added together at the same time in a large sealable jar (50-70 ounces). The mixture will need to sit and steep for about 3-4 weeks. "I usually hit gold around three and a half weeks, more than five and you're really almost past the point of no return," he shares. Related: 10 Secrets to Perfect Liquor Infusions
You'll need to shake your bitters mixture vigorously once daily during the weeks-long steeping process. Tasting regularly is important as well, so that you become sensitive to how the flavor is changing. "Put a few drops on your hands and rub them together, then cup your nose and inhale. Others insist on putting a few drops in a glass of soda water or tasting them directly on your tongue, but I've found that the former dilutes the flavor too much and the other destroys your palette for 20 minutes." Recipe: Liquid Sunshine Cocktail
Dan shares that one of the cooler tricks he's learned in the process of making bitters is the best way to clarify them. Once the mixture has steeped long enough to achieve the desired flavor, he recommends layering cheesecloth in a chinois sieve and passing the mixture through into a nonreactive vessel. Related: 8 Exclusive Beer Sommelier Restaurants
After passing the bitters mixture through the chinois, let that sit for another day or two to allow all of the micro-particles to settle at the bottom. Once they have, decant the liquid or use a turkey baster to extract the bitters from the clean, sediment-free area right near the surface. Says Dan, "Gravity will be much more of a friend in this case than a French Press, paper coffee filter, or colander will ever be." Transfer into a small dropper bottle for easy use when creating cocktails. Related: Drink Quiz: Cocktail Matchmaker
How to go about pairing the right bitters with the right cocktail? Says Dan, "Generally speaking, while the role of bitters in cocktails should be subtle and nuanced, you want them to play nicely and don't want them to get lost. You might want woody, aggressive, smell-them-across-the-bar bitters with Scotch; herbaceous, maybe even floral bitters with dry gin; rich and spicy yet smooth bitters with mezcal. But then again, with a tempered, balanced hand, anything's possible." Recipe: Highland Sage Cocktail
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