The little bottles filled with the essence of various roots, barks and spices are like a time warp back to the good old days of drinking. Those years when pre-Prohibition bartenders made just about everything that went into their cocktails from scratch. It’s an idea many bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts have adopted once again.
The beauty of bitters is similar to that of salt and pepper. A drink may be simply good without them, but with a dash or two of bitters, it’s transformed. Consider the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac.
But bitters aren’t used solely as a cocktail seasoning. Over the past two centuries, the elixir has taken various forms and served—or tried to serve—a variety of purposes. In the 1960s, in an effort to make itself a household name, Angostura Bitters released a cookbook that included recipes made with its bitters. Long before that, in the 19th century, bitters were used as medicine.
Vanilla beans, cardamom, citrus peel, peppercorns, gentian root, cassia bark and star anise help to flavor bitters.
Two 1-quart Jars
High-proof spirit (typically vodka or whiskey)
Roots, herbs, spices and other flavorings
When choosing the type of spirit as your bitters base, consider what the end flavor will be, as well as the types of cocktails the bitters will be used in. For light, fruity drinks, go with vodka. For Manhattans and other whiskey or rum-based drinks, choose a dark spirit. Then, all that’s left is to decide what to flavor the bitters with.
Other more common kitchen spices that are used to flavor bitters include anything from star anise, cardamom and peppercorns to lemongrass and juniper berries.
Ingredients steep for up to two weeks to impart an intense, bitter flavor.
Once all of the roots, spices and other flavorings are gathered, it’s time to embark on the mostly hands-off process of making bitters. Though it varies somewhat from recipe to recipe, this is a generally fool-proof guide.
STEP 1: STEEPING
Combine all the spices, roots, barks and other flavorings to a jar and add in the high-proof spirit. This will sit for about two weeks and will need to be shaken daily to ensure the flavors infuse properly and evenly.
STEP 2: STRAIN & COOK
Strain the spirit into a clean jar using cheesecloth, then seal. Heat solids on the stove with water and then put that entire mixture (water and vodka-soaked ingredients) into a separate jar. Let that sit for one week.
STEP 3: COMBINE & SWEETEN
Strain out the solids, discard and combine the infused vodka with the water. If the liquid is still murky, strain it again through cheesecloth. (It’s common to have a little sediment remain.) The last step is to add a bit of sweetener, if needed, to make the mixture more palatable, as it will be incredibly bitter. Depending on the flavor of the bitters, use a rich simple syrup (two parts turbinado sugar to one part water), honey, molasses or maple syrup. Once added, shake it until the sweetener is fully dissolved and let it sit for another three days. Finally, the bitters are ready to bottle.
Time to use your bitter concoction in a cocktail.
Now, after about a month of mostly passive preparation, all that’s left to do is bottle the bitters. One-, two- and four-ounce dropper bottles can also be easily found on Amazon or at medical supply stores. And, if you want to get really fancy, Cocktail Kingdom has various pro-style bottles that give the perfect dash of aroma to drinks.