Bitters are a versatile way to change a standard gin and tonic adding a rich complex flavour, obviously bitter but also with aromatic spices, slight sweetness, sharp citrus or even a savoury celery taste. Sadly commercial bitters are also expensive, a £10 to £20 punt on an additive can be prohibitive with a small bottle easily passed over for another day. Luckily they are easy to make… ish… well technically the work is easy but the actual blending is a little more stressful!
Earlier in the year I made some Vermouth which while not good enough as a stand alone drink it was great as an addition to cocktails, the botanical version pairing nicely with rhubarb or sloe gin and the spiced version a great partner to blackberry gin. The mountain of botanicals I bought also made it into some home made tonic water – a great tasting and money saving alternative to the bland Schwitty supermarket brands. With a mountain of exotic herbs and spices I have decided to turn some of it to making some bitters. Some for me and some for presents I have just thrust upon my unwitting family.
Bitters are concentrated tastes held in a base of high proof alcohol usually either a clear grain like gin, vodka or apparently best Everclear (the American frat boys spirit of choice) or a darker alcohol like whiskey or bourbon. The base alcohol obviously pushes it towards a certain style and further exotic versions can have rum or even wine as a base. No matter what base you use it needs to be strong, 100% proof or 50abv. If you need to adjust you alcohol you can find a range of calculators like this on the internet – http://homedistiller.org/distill/dilute/calc
The base is used as a solvent to macerate the flavouring ingredients. Most important is the bittering agent that is normally quassia bark, wormwood, cinchona bark, angelica root or gentian root but could be more exotic or less well known bittering agents like artichoke leaf, mugwort, horehound or cherry bark. Some bittering agents are used also as a genuine addition to the taste bringing a roundness or “softness” with citrus peel, dandelion root, black walnut leaf or fruit stones being examples. The bittering agents could be up to 50% of the flavouring in the bitters but most of mine had 10% so there is ample room to blend subtly different styles using combinations of ingredients.
Many bitters have a dominating fruit taste like cherry, fig, orange or plums. Almost anything seems possible. Celery bitters are great to add to a Bloody Mary. Coffee and cocoa beans, almonds, pecans and other nuts can also be used.
In addition to the fruit or as an alternative herbs and spices can can be added. Angostura is a generous blend of herbs and spices that needs no fruit. All the usual dried herbs like basil or thyme can be used and teas like camomile or other floral tastes like lavender and rose petals. Raid your spice draw from allspice, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, fennel and peppercorns and rarer spices like juniper, cassia and star anise. The important thing is to use whole spices rather than powders for a full flavour to be extracted. They can be cracked or pummelled in a pestle and mortar.
Sweetness is optional but can be added as white or brown sugars, dissolved as simple syrup, honey or burned caramel similar to that added to vermouth.
Making the bitters is logistically simple but infinitely hard blending your recipe. You need time to do it – at least a month for the alcohol to be used as a solvent to extract all the flavours out of your ingredients. The most basic method is to throw everything into your alcohol and leave it steeping in a jar. Great if you have a definite recipe but madness if not.
Making small batches of your ingredients and blending after the flavour extracts means you are in control. Keep a note of how much you soak and blend for future recipes. Making the component flavours also means you can control the soak. Bittering agents and dried spices and herbs generally take 7 to 10 days to macerate, dominant fruits and zests the longest at 21 to 28 days, fresh herbs like fennel 14 days. There is no right or wrong, smell and taste them a drop at a time then filter out the sediments when done.
Ratios are approximate as you will be blending later. Add 2 tsp of dried botanicals to 100g /100ml of your base alcohol or alternatively 1 part dried botanical to 5 parts alcohol, or 1 part fresh botanical to 2 parts alcohol. Place them into a sterilised jar and shake once a day and store in a dark cupboard. Once they seem ready filter through clean muslin or a coffee filter. Keep them labelled to track what and when they were made as you can keep them for years for further bitters. You do not need to make these components as 100ml measurements though. Lavender is very powerful and fragrant so I made only 20ml. The citrus zests were made in larger measures.
Once all the infusions are available the fun can start – blending! Start to blend keeping some decent notes as a guide. Measurements can be kept via weight or pipette drops. Use some sparkling water to periodically drop your bitters into as a taste control but keep in mind a true test will be needed. If a taste becomes dominant add a balance. Once done store in a suitable bottle and start to use after 3 days when the flavours have really muddled.
Sod that get a gin and tonic on the go to give it a true field test!!! Bitters are additions so the true test is with other drinks and keep in mind that some bitters may be suited to certain spirits or cocktails more than others.
As the alcohol content is so high there is no need to refrigerate or worry about a use by date. they will last 2 years at least. the only real damage can be done by sunlight or possibly constant changes in temperature.
To start I am made two bitters using vodka as a base, then also knocked out an amazing Strawberry bitter. In future I may well try a Whiskey based version to see how the herbs and spices differ making a sloe bitter or maybe a grapefruit and paprika bitter. Any hints, tips and suggestions appreciated!
HOPPED BLACK PEPPERCORN AND GRAPEFRUIT BITTERS
116ml of 2 pink grapefruit zests, 10 hop heads and 7 peppercorns
30ml orange zest solution
2ml lavender solution
1 ml fennel solution
1 ml coriander solution
2 heaped tsp sugar
40ml grapefruit juice (I froze this after zesting the fruit and kept to add it)
STRAWBERRY AND BAY BITTERS
This needs to live in the fridge as there is less alcohol to preserve it.
100ml strawberry and bay syrup (pour 10ml of water onto 10 or so strawberries and 1 crushed bay leaf and 50g of sugar. Leave for 2 days and then filter to remove the fruit)
5ml gentian solution
3ml rose petal solution
5ml orange zest solution
1 ml lemon zest solution
(Personally I think this needs a little work but it was a more than adequate start!)
140ml blackberry solution
5ml orange zest solution
5 ml lemon zest solution
5ml dandelion root solution
2ml gentian solution
1ml cinnamon solution