From the medicine cabinet to the bar, bitters have a long history of curing ailments and flavoring drinks. Though they may seem mysterious, at heart, bitters are simply bitter and aromatic herbs and spices infused or tinctured in spirits. Combining the various flavors is where the fun part comes in. Here's a primer to making your own bitters at home, which you can use in cocktails, sodas, cooking, and even as digestive aids.
What Botanicals to Use?
Bitters are comprised of bitter-tasting roots, barks, or leaves, plus other botanicals that provide aroma and flavor (and medicinal properties). In general you should use whole ingredients rather than ground, as they are easier to strain out. You can chop ingredients up or coarsely crack them to expose more surface area for infusing.
Bittering agents usually make up 10 to 50% of the blend and may include plants like angelica root, artichoke leaf, barberry root, black walnut leaf, burdock root, calamus root, cinchona bark, citrus peel, dandelion root and leaf, devil's club root, gentian root, horehound, licorice root, mugwort, Oregon grape root, orris root, quassia bark, sarsaparilla, wild cherry bark, and wormwood.
Aromatic and flavor agents round out the bitters and may include just about any herb, spice, flower, fruit, or nut. Use your imagination! Also use organic ingredients when possible, especially when it comes to fruit peels. Some examples:
Spices - allspice, aniseed, caraway, cardamom, cassia, celery seed, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel, ginger, juniper berries, nutmeg, peppercorns, star anise, vanilla beans
Herbs & Flowers - chamomile, hibiscus, hops, lavender, lemongrass, mint, rose, rosemary, sage, thyme, yarrow
Fruits - fresh or dried citrus peel (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit), dried fruit (apples, cherries, figs, raisins)
Nuts - toasted almonds, pecans, walnuts, etc.
Beans - cacao beans, cocoa nibs, coffee beans
To learn more about botanicals, I highly recommend the book The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart.
What Alcohol to Use?
For maximum flavor extraction and preservation, use a high-proof liquor — at least 100 proof or 50% alcohol by volume (ABV). You'll get the most neutral flavor using grain alcohol (such as Everclear) or vodka (Absolut and Smirnoff are fairly accessible brands of 100-proof). You can also experiment with other spirits such as 101-proof bourbon and rye and 151-proof rum.
In addition, bitters may be lightly sweetened with simple syrup, caramel, molasses, honey, or other sweeteners. They may also be diluted with distilled water, bringing the final product no lower than 80 to 90 proof or 40 to 45% ABV.
Which Infusing Method?
There are two main ways to make bitters. One method is to combine all of your botanicals and infuse them in liquor together. The other method (and the one shown here) is to make a separate infusion or tincture of each botanical and then blend them to taste. I prefer this method because different ingredients infuse at different rates. Tincturing them separately gives you more control over the outcome. However, if you have a good recipe, the first method might work just fine.
How Long to Infuse?
Depending on the botanical, infusing time may range from a day to several weeks. Regularly smell and sample each tincture or infusion; it will be ready when it strongly conveys the ingredient. To smell, put a couple drops of the infusion in your palms, rub them together, and hold your hands up to your nose. To taste, put a couple drops in a glass of still or sparkling water. If you taste it straight bear in mind it will be rather intense!
Sources for Ingredients and Supplies
Bitters ingredients may be found at grocery stores, spice shops, medicinal herb shops, in gardens, growing wild, and online.
Place botanicals in separate jars
How to Make Homemade Bitters
What You Need
High-proof liquor (at least 100 proof or higher)
Distilled water for diluting (optional)
→ Quantities and Measurements: If you're new to making bitters, I recommend starting with 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried botanicals per 4 ounces of liquor (the size of a small mason jar). You can make as many separate tinctures as you like, and once you get the bug you'll probably want to experiment with many. In the beginning I suggest starting with at least 6 to 12, including 1 or more bittering agents.
If you want to get more specific, you can make your tinctures using the classic herbalists' weight to volume ratio of 1 part dried botanical to 5 parts liquor, or 1 part fresh botanical to 2 parts liquor.
Cutting board, knife, vegetable peeler, and/or zester for cutting and peeling fruit
Knife and/or mortar and pestle for cracking spices
Measuring tools (cups, spoons, scale)
Clean mason jars or other containers for making tinctures
Labels for tincture jars (a Sharpie and masking tape or painter's tape works well)
Fine-mesh strainer, cheesecloth, and/or coffee filters for straining
Dropper, pipette, or syringe for blending
Clean bottles for finished bitters
Place botanicals in separate jars: Place each botanical (bittering agents or aromatic/flavor agent) in a separate jar. You may wish to chop up or crack ingredients to expose more surface area for better and faster infusion.
Cover with liquor: Add liquor to each jar, making sure the botanicals are completely submerged. Cover the jar tightly.
Label the jars: Don't forget to label the jar with the contents and date. You may also wish to write down the measurements you used, either on the label or in separate notes.
Shake the jars once a day: Give each jar a good shake, and continue to shake them once a day.
Wait for botanicals to infuse: Depending on the botanical, infusing time may range from a day to several weeks. Regularly smell and sample each tincture; it will be ready when it strongly conveys the ingredient. To smell, put a couple drops of the infusion in your palms, rub them together, and hold your hands up to your nose. To taste, put a couple drops in a glass of still or sparkling water — or taste it straight but bear in mind it will be rather intense!
Strain: When each tincture is ready, strain out the solids. For finer straining, use a coffee filter.
Blend: Now comes the creative part. Using a dropper, pipette, or syringe, start blending the different tinctures together in a small glass or clean bitters bottle. You might use anywhere from a couple drops to a full ounce or two of each tincture. Optionally, you can dilute it with distilled water and/or lightly sweeten it. (Remember to take notes so you can reproduce your bitters recipe if it turns out well!) Try your blend using the smelling and tasting tips in Step 5. Give it a few days or weeks for the flavors to really marry.
Bottle: If you didn't blend your bitters right in the bottle, transfer the mixture to a clean container. It can last for years!
Simple Bitters Blends to Try
I encourage you to experiment with your own bitters blends, but if you want to get started with something fairly simple, here are some blends that use mostly common ingredients and six tinctures or less. Taste your blends as you go along and adjust depending on the strength and nature of your particular infusions.
Orange Bitters: 12 parts orange peel, 2 parts gentian, 2 parts cardamom, 2 parts coriander, 1 part allspice, 1 part cloves
Lavender Bitters: 20 parts lavender, 6 parts orange, 2 parts vanilla, 1 part ginger
Coffee Bitters: 10 parts coffee bean, 3 parts cocoa nib, 2 parts wormwood, 1 part orange, 1 part cinnamon; sweeten to taste with molasses
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(Image credits: Emily Han)