Hopped grapefruit / Strawberry and bay / Blackberry bitters

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.

Spirytus can be used to increase the ABV/proof of your base alcohol

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.

Various ingredients macerating

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.

Sage macerating in 50% ABV vodka

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.

Blending hopped grapefruit bitters

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!


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)


This needs to live in the fridge as there is less alcohol to preserve it.

Strawberry syrup being made

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
1ml fennel
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



After spending a small fortune for rare ingredients to MAKE MY OWN VERMOUTH I obviously had enough left over for another 10 years of vermouth experiments and maybe crazed experiments in tonic water too. In fact it is not tonic water but a tonic cordial frozen as ice cubes that is then diluted to make the true tonic water.

These were the best resources I found were:


Tonic water has always and always will have a quinine in it. Quinine is the very reason it exists as a herbal tonic to stop malaria, that morphed into tonic water and was thus added to gin or cocktails ever since. I cannot get my hands on cinchona bark the ingredient that gives the quinine as in Britain it is restricted for sale… as you can poison yourself… or others with it. Quinine is extracted from cinchona but no one really knows how much is extracted in a domestic setting and many recipes if followed with maximum extraction could bring it to toxic levels. Which brings us to the recipes you can get your hands on for making cinchona bark-based tonic – no one really knows if they are truly safe.

Seeing as I did not have cinchona and I did have The Fear, I decided to look at non-cinchona recipes and see what I could do with the ingredients I did have. A decent spread of the ingredients seems to be:

  • BITTERS – cinchona bark… or quassia bark, gentian root, (with hops, dandelion root)
  • ZESTS – lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit
  • BOTANICALS – lemongrass, cardamom, allspice, star anise, peppercorns, coriander seed, ginger, lavender
  • SWEET – sugar, agave nectar
  • ACID – lemon, lime, grapefruit juice, citric acid
  • SALT – salt… obviously
Tonic water ingredients

The two non-cinchona bittering agents I could use were quassia bark or gentian root. Quassia bark is intensely bitter and only needs 1/4 of the weight to give a similar bitterness to quinine. Do not confuse quassia with cassia bark that is very similar to nutmeg. Gentian is apparently gram-for-gram very similar to cinchona which I plan to test for the next batch. Hops and dandelion root are not a primary bittering agent but rather to add flavour complexity. The botanicals vary greatly with some preferring a very zesty flavour, others a more aromatic version with lavender. Some may like to just add allspice while others muddle with various extra ingredients. I would say that grapefruit should be used sparingly – an interesting addition but one that can dominate and also lemon grass can go from fragrant ingredient to pungent overpowering uber-taste very easily. Agave syrup can be substituted for granulated sugar but only 2/3 of the weight is needed. The ratio of sweetness you need really is key to a good tonic as too little dulls the overall taste and hitting the literal sweet spot makes all the botanicals come alive.

Poisonous ingredients and their ratios might be a nightmare but the method could not be easier. Boil – Simmer – Soak – Strain – Sweeten.

  1. Boil the bittering agents to extract as much flavour as possible for 10 minutes. Filter into a new pan
  2. Add the botanicals and simmer for a further 20 minutes
  3. Leave to cool and add the citrus to soak for 3 days in a sealed jar in a cool dark cupboard
  4. Strain and add sugar
  5. Freeze in ice cube trays

When it comes time to use the tonic drop a tonic icecube in your glass and dilute with x5 the volume of sparkling water or soda water.

Now without further ado.. seriously, look at the links I posted to see what they did… this is my personal recipe tailor made for me…


Water 1L
Quassia wood 7g (or gentian root 20g)
Hops 1 head (I found some foraged but non-essential)
Dandelion root 3g
Lemon grass x 2 stalks bruised
Zest of 3 limes, 3 lemons, 2 oranges (1/2 grapefruit optional)
Juice of 2 limes, 2 lemons (1/2 grapefruit optional)
Cardamom x 6 pods
Allspice berry x 4 (I used 1/8 tsp allspice powder)
1/4 tsp coriander seers crushed
1/2 tsp peppercorns crushed
1/4 tsp salt
Agave nectar 350g
Sugar 250g


Simmering tonic water

Boil one litre of water and drop in the quassia wood, hops and dandelion root and boil for 10 minutes to extract all of the bitterness. Drop to a simmer and add the Lemon grass x 2 stalks bruised, cardamom (removed from the pod and lightly crushed) allspice, crushed coriander seeds & peppercorns and salt for 20 minutes.

Steeping citrus zest in the tonic water

Leave to cool then filter before adding the juice, zests and sugar and stir until dissolved. Leave in a sealed sterile bottle for three days then filter into ice cube trays and freeze. The cubes will last at least three months probably more. Dilute with sparkling or soda water when needed.