For cocktail geeks, making your own bitters is akin to getting a prison tattoo: You’re in the gang and no one’s going to mess with you (read “question your cocktail chops”). Given this comparison, you’re probably thinking, wow, making bitters must be difficult, time consuming, and painful. It’s not.
Grab a bunch of dried barks, roots, spices, and herbs, a quantity of high-proof booze, and a bunch of lidded jars—and you’re 80% there. The rest is simply mixing, waiting, and straining.
Like a jelly-of-the-month club, your finished homemade bitters will keep on giving, adding depth and complexity to untold cocktails, as well as foods (try adding drops to vinaigrettes, sauces, soups, and stews).
Whether I’m cooking dinner or mixing a drink, I always want the ability to season to taste; with that in mind, I’ve created more of a bitters kit with a couple suggested combinations, rather than a single recipe. The first step is making an arsenal of infusions, each a high-proof liquor infused with one ingredient for a specific amount of time—like mint-infused vodka or allspice-infused rum. Then, to create the bitters formulation you like, strain and combine the infusions in varying proportions to achieve the desired flavor. For example, I’ve found that mixing infusions of lemon, bitter orange, quassia bark, ginger, and coriander creates a delightful blend of citrus bitters. Also good to know: Because I’m using readily available high-proof booze (not pure grain alcohol), these bitters aren’t as concentrated as the professionally crafted stuff, so it’s necessary to use a heavier hand when adding them to drinks.
After mixing up my Old-Fashioned Bitters recipe, you might decide that it needs more gentian, cardamom, or bitter orange (and while you’ll be wrong, you’ll also have the tools to help you make that mistake).
Consider yourself inked.
Start with high-quality dried barks, roots, spices, and herbs. I find everything I need in the pantry at Mountain Rose Herbs. I like to crush the spices and toast them in a dry skillet for a couple of minutes to release their oils.
Combine the dried components with the highest-proof alcohol you can legally get your hands on: 101-proof bourbon, 100-proof vodka, 151-proof rum. I’ve found that some of the components are complemented by bourbon’s sweetness or rum’s distinctive spice, while others show best in neutral-tasting vodka.
Let the infusions sit for anywhere from 24 hours to 5 days. My ratio of stuff to booze is pretty high, so infusion times are cut significantly (no month-long wait here). I also skip the annoying (and thankfully unnecessary) step of daily agitation. As I discovered when working out my Cold-Brew Coffee recipe, agitation has very little effect on infusion strength.
After the infusions have sat for the appropriate amount of time, simply strain them through a coffee filter-lined mesh strainer and transfer them to clean, labeled jars.
I treat the finished infusions as I do my spice rack (though I don’t actually own a spice rack): they are base ingredients that can be combined to create new and interesting flavors.
I’ve included my recipes for Old-Fashioned Bitters and Citrus Bitters. For both, simply measure the separate infusions into a measuring cup and pour the contents through a funnel into a dropper bottle (which makes for easy and accurate cocktail seasoning).
Finally, mix up a drink and add drops to taste.