Why It Works
- Neutral grain spirit draws out the flavor from orange peels and spices.
- Customize the variety of oranges, spices, or bittering agents you use to match your favorite cocktails.
Orange bitters are basically my cocktail Superman. When I've screwed up a drink by making it too sweet or gotten so close to perfection only to end up with something flat-tasting, orange bitters have swooped in to save the day. Just a drop or two can add the right depth or bridge together ingredients that aren't quite living up to their mixological potential. But orange bitters are so much more than a way to fix a bad drink—they're an essential part of so many balanced cocktails because of their deep, citrusy, spicy, and complex flavor.
What's Available to Buy
We're lucky to live in The Golden Age of Bitters. There's such a variety of outstanding options available—from the classic Angostura and Peychaud's to wild flavors like Sriracha and Xocolatl Mole—so it's hard to remember that several years ago you couldn't even find orange bitters in a well-stocked liquor store. Now Regans', Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth, and Angostura orange bitters are easy to get a hold of, and small-batch bitters producers are popping up like crazy. As we've discussed on SE: Drinks before, each brand varies a bit in orange flavor and spiciness, so there's an orange bitters for every occasion—and many bars mix more than one version together to make a house blend.
Homemade bitters require a couple of obscure ingredients and a sense of adventure. If you're game, you'll be rewarded with a unique, versatile cocktail ingredient that lasts for years. All you need is something to make your bitters taste bitter (usually an herb or tree bark), plus spices and other sources of flavor, and alcohol to steep them all in.
The beauty of DIY bitters is unleashing your creativity and crafting bitters that you can't find anywhere else.
There isn't much point to creating exact duplicates of what's already on the market, since bitters are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. The beauty of DIY bitters is unleashing your creativity and crafting bitters that you can't find anywhere else. I emphasized anise in the recipe I've provided here, but you could just as easily play up the cloves or add cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, or ginger for a whole new flavor profile. You could even devise a special orange bitters recipe exclusively for margaritas if that's your thing! (I'd recommend bumping up the orange and adding cardamom and cinnamon in that case.)
You'll need to get your hands on some gentian root, which is what makes bitters taste, well, bitter. (There are a few online sources, so this isn't such a big deal.) I also used quassia chips, another bitter ingredient that adds a woodsy, tea-like quality to the mix. However, if you have some leftover cinchona bark from making your own tonic or wormwood leaves from making sweet vermouth, those are other bittering options.
Orange bitters were essential to so many 19th-century cocktails, so you'll see them pop up in a ton of classics like the Martinez. Add a few dashes to a martini or Vesper, and you'll probably never want to go back.
Those classic drinks are pretty simple, but orange bitters also tie together more complex drinks like Satan's Whiskers and The Revolver or lighter, fruitier drinks like the No. 8 and Bonnie Prince Charlie. While you can't (or shouldn't) drink a glass of bitters undiluted, you can enjoy the flavor by itself: just add a few drops to a glass of seltzer water for a satisfying drink.
4 oranges (zest only) (see notes)
1 cup 151-proof neutral grain spirit, divided (see notes)
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 star anise pod
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
1 teaspoon gentian root (see notes)
1 teaspoon quassia chips (see notes)
1 1/2 cups 101-proof bourbon (see notes)
Zest oranges using a vegetable peeler and place peel on a cookie sheet. Bake at 100°F (40°C) until dried but not burned, about 40 minutes. Check regularly to ensure peels have not burned.
Once zests are cool, place them in a sealable glass jar with 1/2 cup of 151 neutral grain spirit. Be sure this jar is large enough to later hold an additional 1 cup of liquid. Shake. This is your orange flavoring.
Place caraway seeds, cloves, star anise, and anise seeds in a different sealable glass jar with 1/2 cup of 151 neutral grain spirit. Shake. This is your spice mix.
Place gentian root and quassia chips in a sealable glass jar with bourbon. Shake. This is your bittering mix.
After 10 days, strain the spice mix and bittering mix through a fine-mesh sieve to remove the solids. Strain again through a coffee filter into the orange flavoring jar. Do not remove the orange zest. Shake. You now have one jar that contains the strained spice mix and bittering mix along with the steeping orange zest and alcohol. Let this steep for an additional 11 days.
Strain out orange zest through a fine-mesh sieve, and then strain the rest through a coffee filter into your desired container.
Orange zester or peeler, fine-mesh sieve, baking sheet, coffee filter
Many stores sell dried orange peels, so you have the option of store-bought instead of drying your own. I used navel oranges, but you can try different types of oranges.
I used Wild Turkey 101 and Everclear 151 for my spirits base. If you cannot find these, you can substitute another bourbon and use the highest proof vodka available to you.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 0g||0%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrate 0g||0%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||1%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|