You may know Zachary Feldman from his late-night dining column over at Serious Eats NY. But you may not know that in addition to his freelance writing, Zachary is busy running his own small batch bitters company, Bitters, Old Men. Since we've been talking a lot lately about bitters, we asked Zachary to gives us a primer to making your own bitters at home.
Now that cocktails and the often-mustachioed men (and facial-hairless ladies) who make them have been etched into our consciousness by the craft cocktail movement, you can't move a millimeter in even the dingiest of contemporary drink dens without hearing that "B" word: bitters, bitters, bitters. Restaurants and bars are crafting their own concoctions, while enthusiasts and entrepreneurs (myself included) toil away in their kitchens and laboratories for months-long macerations. The spirits world seems to have gone bonkers for bitters. But what are bitters really made of? And how can you go about making your own?
Arguments abound as to the ingredients and processes that constitute true bitters, but we'll make it easy for you: they all require some sort of bittering agent utilized with adequate potency. Classic choices include wormwood, gentian root or quassia and cinchona barks, but as long as your mixture is concentrated enough, you could even make bitters with produce like arugula and dandelion greens.
While the flavor spectrum for bitters runs the gamut—from papaya, to xocolatl mole to barbeque—for the purposes of this post we'll be focusing on a recipe for homemade aromatic bitters that plays well with most spirits. I call them Krangostura.
Aromatic bitters are the most traditional of the species, with the crown jewel being Trinidad's House of Angostura. And while I'd never be so ballsy as to label my Krangostura bitters a true substitute for Angostura—whose recipe allegedly calls for 47 different ingredients—these historically-inspired bitters should perform a similar function. The batch name's unfortunate pun comes from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of my childhood and its disembodied supervillain Lord Krang—the baddest, toughest anthropomorphic brain to ever wear a "human-shaped exo-suit" (Wikipedia, not me).
Equipment You'll Need
- 750 mL mason jar or other airtight nonreactive container, made of glass or stainless steel. (Available online.)
- mortar and pestle
- vegetable peeler
- mesh strainer
- soup pot, at least 2 quart capacity
- Saucepan, 1 1/2 quart capacity or bigger
Choosing Ingredients for Krangostura Bitters
Aromatic bitters are big on holiday spices like clove, cinnamon and nutmeg, but for these I really wanted the clove to dominate. You'll also be using mace, which has a bitter nutmeg flavor with clove undertones, and Indonesian cinnamon, whose low levels of essential oils make it the meekest-flavored cinnamon on the market.
Angostura bitters, as bitter as they are, have a profound sweetness to them as well, so this recipe includes raisins, molasses, and muscovado syrup for depth and the peels of fresh Meyer lemons and Cara Cara oranges for their low acidity to ensure that bright fruitiness without overpowering the spices. If you can't find Meyer Lemons and Cara Cara oranges, regular lemons and navel oranges can be substituted.
Finally, to make this heady brew an actual bitters, there's a healthy dose of gentian (available as chips and twigs from Mountain Rose Herbs) and cinchona bark (available at Kalustyans and Herbs of Mexico.) You can get powdered versions, but they'll be trickier for filtering than the chips and twigs.
You'll start your bitters with the highest-proof neutral spirit you can find. A neutral spirit is important because you want a blank canvas to start with, and strength-wise, the higher the proof the faster and more intense the infusion will be. Choose Everclear 190, Devil's Spring (160 proof), or Polmos Warszawa Spirytus Rektyfikowany (190 proof).
To make your bitters, you'll add all the spices and molasses to your airtight container and cover with the alcohol, then store in a dark place. Tuck it away in the darkest part of the closet. If you have a Narnia, by all means store it with your friend Mr. Tumnus. Every day, take it out and give it a shake.
Some people create separate tinctures of each ingredient and then blend them to create the final product. This isn't ideal, since the flavors never really get a chance to meld together and develop during maceration, resulting in a product that deals in surface flavors only, devoid of background notes. For this recipe, everything except the citrus (which gets added after two weeks) is combined with the grain spirit at the beginning.
As with everything culinary, it's important to constantly sample your efforts. If any tweaking is necessary, you can add a little more of one thing or another to reach your desired flavor balance. Wait a day or two before tasting again.
After a month of storing and shaking daily has gone by, maceration is complete, and it's time for the fun stuff—dilution and filtering. Without performing these steps, all you really have is a jar full of wonderful-smelling muck. The first thing to do is strain the jar contents through cheesecloth. Set aside the macerated alcohol. But don't discard the solids!
Put the solids in a 2 quart (or bigger) soup pot. Cover them with four cups of water and bring to a boil to infuse the flavor of the ingredients into the water and burn off any remaining alcohol. Let cool, then strain the infused water into a separate container.
The macerated alcohol that you strained needs to be brought down in proof or else it will taste and smell like Christmasy rocket fuel and all of your hard work will have been for naught. To bring down the proof, you'll mix the two solutions (the macerate and the infused water) together to produce a rough estimate of between 40%-45% alcohol by volume, or ABV. If you're using Everclear, which is 190 proof (or 95% abv), you'll mix your infused alcohol with your infused water at a roughly 1:1 ratio to bring the 95% abv macerate down to 44% ABV. You'll also add some muscovado simple syrup to the mix at this point to sweeten it up.
After mixing, pour some of the bitters into a clear glass container and hold it up to the light. At this point you have two choices. If you're happy with the clarity, congratulations, you've just made bitters! Slap on some vintage duds and get to slinging tipples.
If you're OCD and start to sweat from all of the little particles floating around in your prized creation, then you can filter the diluted mixture a final time, either by passing it through a coffee filter or layers of cheesecloth, or the easier but sloppier option of letting it sit for a day or two until physics takes care of the remaining solid matter, after which you can either decant or use a turkey baster to skim the clear stuff from the top. And voila, you're ready to start making cocktails!