Many bar owners feel satisfied with purchasing big-brand bitters and calling it a day. Others prefer to add a personal touch to their cocktails and enjoy making their own. If you run a bar, or have your own cocktail lounge at home, making your own bitters is a great way to add your own flavor ideas to your drinks.
Bitters-making is also a fun way to get not-so-experienced cocktail drinkers involved in the cocktail-making process. So, whether you’re a veteran cocktail drinker, or are new to the scene, making bitters is a great way to learn about flavor and aroma combinations.
What are Bitters?
Before we go any further, let’s get a little refresher on what bitters actually are. Bitters are used for adding a kick of flavor to certain cocktails. And remember: a few drops of bitters can go a long way.
Bitters are alcoholic non-beverage products, meaning that they are alcoholic, but are not meant to be consumed like a regular drink. They are a small amount of alcohol that has been flavored with a range of ingredients.
The ingredients used in bitters are historically natural, aromatic herbs and spices. These can include cardamom, vanilla beans, anise, cinnamon, walnuts, lavender, and so much more. Besides herbs and spices, roots and barks can also be used. Things like gentian root, cinchona bark, cascarilla bark, and gentian root are all common bitters ingredients.
Don’t worry if those ingredients sound strange and hard to come by. The thing about bitters is that there isn’t one recipe to follow. Bitters aren’t a one-size-fits-all type of thing; everyone’s taste is different, so the ingredients everyone chooses to put in their bitters will be different as well.
Basically, whatever herbs, roots, barks, fruits, and flavorings that you can get your hands on can be used to make bitters. All it takes is a little trial and error.
Making bitters gives you a chance to experiment with flavors and aromas. So, read the following list and pick out the ingredients that you think would go well together. Any ingredients from the following list could make a good combination, so you can’t really go wrong.
- Star anise
- Fennel seeds
- Wintergreen leaf
- Licorice root
Vegetables and Fruits
- Orange peel/zest
- Lemon peel/zest
- Grapefruit peel/zest
- Lime peel/zest
- Coffee beans
- Cocoa beans
- Cherry bark
- Birch bark
- Cinchona bark
- Cascarilla bark
- Gentian root
- Burdock root
- Sunflower seeds
You can also use essential oils or simple syrups for an extra desired taste or aroma.
Pick as many or as few ingredients as you want. Just be aware that anything more than 5 or 6 ingredients will risk getting a bit muddied and start tasting ‘off’.
Some of those ingredients can be hard to find, but the majority of them can be found at any supermarket, or might even be in your kitchen cabinets as you read this.
Step-by-Step Guide to Making Cocktail Bitters
The process of making bitters is probably a lot more simple than you think it is. Basically, all you have to do is let the ingredients you choose steep in alcohol for a few weeks until the flavors are infused. Of course, the process is a bit more complicated than that, but in simple terms, that’s all it is.
Here’s a super simple bitters recipe that anyone can try. You can pick and choose your own ingredients and then follow the steps below to turn them into great bitters.
You Will Need…
- 1 cup of grain alcohol or vodka. Non-grain alcohol won’t bring out the flavors of your herbs and spices as well.
- About ½ a cup of herbs, flowers, spices, nuts, vegetables and/or fruits of your choice.
- A glass jar with a top.
- Tinted dropper bottles. Alcohol has to be stored in tinted bottles to keep out unwanted light and heat. You’ll need a bottle with a dropper to allow you to add your bitters into drinks in a controlled way.
Step 1 – Prepare your ingredients. Using your own intuition, portion out all your ingredients in a way that you think will create the best flavor combination. It’s hard to go wrong in this step. Just think about it — if you don’t put enough of a certain flavor, you can always add in more later. On the other hand, if you think you made your bitters too strong, all you have to do is add in a little more alcohol to lessen the flavor.
Step 2 – Fill up your jar. In the bottom of the jar, pour in your spices, herbs, and whatever other ingredients you’re using. Then, pour in the alcohol. After this, put the top on tightly.
Step 3 – Wait… Now that your ingredients are combined, it’s time to store your jar in a cool, dark place and wait for the flavors of your ingredients to infuse the alcohol. To get strong enough bitters, you will have to wait for about 2-3 weeks.
Step 4 – Taste. After giving your bitters some time to sit, it’s time to taste. Since bitters aren’t meant to be drunk on their own, you should take a little dropper and put a few drops of your bitters into a cup of seltzer. You should be able to tell if your bitters are strong enough. If they aren’t, let them sit for another week or so. If they are, then it might be time to move on to the next step.
Step 5 – Strain. Using a cheesecloth, or just a regular strainer, separate the solids from the liquids.
Step 6 – Sweeten (optional). If you think your bitters are too bitter, or too strong, you may want to add in a bit of simple syrup. You can buy simple syrup or make your own. Otherwise, you can just add in a few more teaspoons of alcohol.
To make a simple syrup, pour ¼ cup sugar and ¼ cup water into a saucepan and let it simmer and dissolve over low heat. Stir every few seconds. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, take the mixture off the heat and let it cool.
Add just a bit at a time to your bitters until everything tastes perfect.
Step 7 – Bottle and label. Now it’s time to pour your bitters into dropper bottles. On the outside of each bottle, make a label identifying all the ingredients and amounts that you used. It’s smart to keep a record of how you make your bitters so that you can always keep improving off of past bitters-making attempts.
Making alcohol bitters at home is probably one of the easiest things someone can do in the kitchen. All you do is cut up some ingredients, put them into a jar, cover them in alcohol, and wait a few weeks. The process is super easy, and the results are worth it.