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Making Your Own Bitters

July 18, 2013

If spirits are the notes of a cocktail then bitters is what makes the music. Until recently the only mainstream bitters known was the one with the yellow top and the over sized label. Previous flavors were gone with the wind and the art of making one’s own bitters (as before the industrial revolution and mass production) was lost in time like many aspects of great mixology.

Nowadays there is a plethora of bitters flavors ranging from Pre-Prohibition recipes, aromatic, barrel-aged, fruit, veggie and even chiles, each adding its own style to a cocktail. Change the bitters and you change the drink.

It is always great to experiment with the different flavors and even more fun to make your own. There are several ways to do so; it comes down to simply macerating and combining flavors to find your own “cocktail music style”.

A note on flavor extraction:
“Infusion” typically involves heating ingredients to quickly extract flavor whereas “maceration” does not involve heat. If you choose to use an infusion method, make sure you take notes of times and especially temperatures. Infusion gives a different flavor profile and is faster than maceration as infusion involves heat, but it is riskier and not recommended when first starting out.

Step One: Gather your Instruments

Small mason jars
High proof neutral grain spirit (over 100 proof)
Syringes or each jar that measure to the milliliter (so not to cross contaminate your flavors
Fruit peels, spices, herbs, roots, barks, chiles, sugars and/or bittering agents (gentian, wormwood, osha root, etc.). The possibilities are endless and the more the merrier!
Tape or labels, a note pad and pen

Step Two: Begin the Extraction
Fill each jar with the individual ingredient, cover with the high proof booze and label the jar. Next taste each one daily until you are satisfied with the flavor strength of its contents. Make notes as to how long each jar takes. Once happy, strain the jar and dispose of the flavoring agent reserving the now flavored liquid.

Step Three: Compose your Notes
Now that you have all of your flavor extracts, take a clean empty jar and with the syringe (also labeled with the flavor to which it belongs) begin to combine the flavors, taking note of exactly how much of each extract you add. I prefer to start with the main flavor I want say orange, then add various seasonings to it like cinnamon, or clove, and sugar, saving the bittering agents to last.

Step Four: Start the Music
Once satisfied with the results, write the full recipe down so you can recreate these bitters again.

Step Five: Sing Loud Sing Proud
Try them in your favorite cocktail!

Some things to remember along the way:
If your bitters are too strong, add a little water to bring down the potency.
Thought they are called “bitters” many contain sugar of some sort, which will also help enhance the flavors especially if you are creating a citrus bitters.
Don’t get discouraged if the first few times your don’t like your results. Like anything, this takes practice.

Not every combination will be a success, but that is the fun of experimentation and creation. This is the art of mixology. The craft is being able to do it again and again, hence your well-taken notes.

Now, there is a riskier way to do this, which is IF you have a defined idea and know that your combination of flavors will work, you can macerate all the flavors in one jar at the same time. You can always add flavors this way; however, it is next to impossible to subtract a flavor once in the jar. Another downside is if one flavor begins to overpower the others, the only thing to do is stop the entire process, which ends in a lot of frustration and waste.

Bitters is what brings a drink together, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is the soul of a cocktail and the essence of its beauty. And creating your own bitters, even if used in a classic cocktail, makes that cocktail truly your own.

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