In the much talked about history of cocktails, bitters play an interesting side-role. They were traditionally used as early as the eighteenth century for medicinal purposes, a sort of herbal cure-all. Until recently it seemed the only type of bitters that existed was Angostura, with its constantly oversized label. Now, however, there are hundreds of producers and flavors ranging everywhere from blueberry, to chocolate, to lavender. It’s hard to imagine modern mixology without the help of these potent little flavor providers.
We decided it would be a fun experiment to make our own bitters by following a couple recipes provided by modern cocktail books. We chose to make the two most common styles of bitters so we could compare our results with the leading producers of theses styles. The first is aromatic bitters, i.e. Angostura, used in classics such as the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. The second is orange bitters, i.e. Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, used in the Alaska Cocktail, and optionally in classic versions of the Martini.
Here are the recipes for each, followed by a procedure that can be duplicated for both:
BTP House Bitters (from Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, by Brad Thomas Parsons)
2 tablespoons chopped dried orange peel.
Zest of 1 orange, cut into strips
¼ cup dried sour cherries
5 green cardamom pods, cracked
2 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise
1 vanilla bean halved lengthwise
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon quassia chips
¼ teaspoon gentian root
½ teaspoon cassia chips
Pinch of dried black walnut leaf
2 cups high proof rye
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 5 (from The Joy of Mixology, by Gary Regan)
8 ounces chopped dried orange peel
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds (removed from pods)
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon quassia chips
½ teaspoon powdered cinchona bark
¼ teaspoon gentian
2 cups grain alcohol or high proof vodka
Okay, maybe these ingredients aren’t all necessarily household items (that witches brew reference doesn’t seem so far off), but all the exotic agents can be ordered online. If you live in New York City, the Dual Specialty Store on First Avenue at Fifth Street offers everything you need, and it’s cheap! To make your own dried orange peel, take a vegetable peeler to an armload of oranges, chop the peels up and put them in a low-heat oven for an hour as a fun side project.
The first stage is the same for both bitters. Combine all the ingredients in a large mason jar so that all the solids are covered by the spirit (it’s okay to use a little more spirit to cover). Allow to stand for two weeks, shaking vigorously once a day.
After a week, strain out the solids from the water using a cheesecloth-lined funnel and add the water to the original infused alcohol along with 2 tablespoons of rich simple syrup, which can be made by dissolving 2 parts demerara sugar in 1 part water with the help of a little heat from the stovetop. Shake one final time and let stand for three days. Skim any leftover debris from the surface and decant into a bottle with a dasher top for use.
Admittedly, it’s quite the process, but all-in-all some good old fashioned quasi-alchemistic fun. When we finish the process we’ll post Homemade Bitters Part 2 and you can see how our finished bitters compare to what’s on the market already by mixing ‘em up in some cocktails. Til’ then!