Learning how to make your own bitters is actually pretty easy. Here’s a simple method to make your own proprietary bitters (DIY)
An excellent cocktail is like a well composed dish. The spirit is the protein, the sugars are the fats, the acids are well…the acids, and bitters my friend are the spice rack.
Like salt in a soup, these little marvels work their magic through dasher tops or dropper vials to instantly change the complexion of a drink (or food for that matter), and add another layer of depth.
How many times have you fiddled around at home and McGuyvered a cocktail that ended up being pretty good…but ultimately ended up kind of flat and one-dimensional? But then sometimes, out of some divine inspiration, we reach for that yellow capped misfit from Trinidad we bought at the grocery store years back. With a cheap paper label too big for its’ bottle, it sits sequestered with the Caesar rimmer and the Hypnotiq from that house party 2 years ago. Bravely, with a violent shwack we dash it’s unifying essence and thusly save our cocktail from mediocrity.
Angostura aromatic bitters are simply put, the gold standard for flexibility in this field. If ever you stumble across a recipe that calls for “bitters” and does not specify a type…this is what you use. The unique blend of warming winter spices: (clove, cinnamon, cardamom), along with gentian (a bitter root bark) make it an umbrella solution to cocktails that need a little extra punch.
Sometimes though, in the pursuit of the perfect custom cocktail…we need a flavour augmenter that isn’t readily available at our local merchant. So what do we do…? We make our own. Let me guide you through my process for when I need to create bitters to harmonize a concept and bridge the ingredients together.
There are basically two schools of thought, or methodology, when it comes to making bitters:
The First DIY Bitters Method: Throw everything into a jar together with some booze and pray it works out
Being an instinctual person, I can appreciate the cavalier nature of this approach and trusting your gut. That being said…way too many variables come into play and we need to take some steps to control what is going on.
Extraction is a funny process: Star anise will seep out faster than dried apricots; Dried lavender will imbue faster than fresh lemongrass.
Depending on moisture content and the nature of your botanicals, they all have different clocks when it comes time to steeping. Because of this, I highly advise against the one shot, one kill method of preparing your cocktail bitters.
The Second DIY Bitters Method: Tincture, Tinker, Tailor
For the utmost control of your flavours, I strongly recommend a three jar approach.
- The Base Tincture
This is the hero element of your bitters, and the flavor you want to showcase most (apricot, lavender, coffee, hops, strawberry, etc)
You are going to simply isolate said element with as many different layers of that flavour as you can (ie. if you are making apricot bitters, try and get dried, as well as fresh fruit, even smash up the pits). Once packed in, fill the jar with a clean vodka of choice, or a very high ABV neutral grain spirit like Everclear. The choice between the two doesn’t matter much, it just becomes a matter of time. 75% liquor will extract quicker than 40% vodka , basically taking days to infuse…not weeks. Agitate every day to maximize surface area contact and taste regularly until desired flavor is present.
- The Highlight Botanical Tincture
These are the supporting cast that lift the profile of your bitters and keep them from being flat. A good mental approach to this when relaying to your base tincture is applying a culinary lens. Say you are making some strawberry bitters; a little black peppercorn and dried basil really lift it to the next level. Here is a foolproof set for a good secondary layer to almost any bitter:
- Dried citrus peel (orange & lemon)
- Star Anise
- The Bitter Tincture
This is what separates the term “bitters” from a tincture. Tinctures are simply an element in alcohol. Cocktail bitters add depth by drying out and spicing with medicinal digestive root barks and herbs. Three common and easily attainable ways to do this are with:
Wormwood – Artemisia Absinthium, the key element in absinthe and traditional vermouths.
Cinchona Bark – The “fever tree” that gave us quinine – the treatment for malaria and the bitterness in a good tonic water.
Gentian Root – The dry, almost dusty ingredient that gives Campari and Suze their signature Aperitif flavour.
*All available at Self Heal Herbs in downtown Victoria
Once isolated in alcohol, and fully extracted…you now have full control to blend your three jars to the desired product. A good ratio to follow for smaller batches is this:
*Based on 3x 500ml mason jars:
-1 Full jar base tincture
-⅓ Jar highlight botanical tincture *good for re-use*
-1-3 Teaspoons bitter tincture (depending on strength of bittering agent)
-Sweetening element *to taste* (agave, caramel, honey, etc)
If using a super-high ABV alcohol like Everclear, feel free to dilute down to stretch the batch to around 40-45%.