Your at-home cocktails gardens are resting prettily in the windowsill. There are no major holidays for which to prepare grog. And, your infusions are happily marinating on the shelves. So, what’s the next step in your home mixology program? Let’s try homemade bitters.
With your new bitters brewed, you’ll be able to round out some of your homemade cocktails, make some much-loved, classic cocktails, and jazz up your non-alcoholic drinks. You can even get creative and throw some bitters on your favorite desserts.
In short, we think you’re ready to take it up a notch.
To help us out, we went to the only bar in Portland that boasts a housemade bitters program: Teardrop Lounge. Owner and bartender Daniel Shoemaker gave us the lowdown on bitters plus two of his recipes, which are listed below, followed by our simple Manhattan recipe to start you off in your new bitters-using future.
A Little Bit About Bitters
Bitters are old-school, herbaceous, high-proof digestifs that have long been used for their medicinal value and as drink flavorings. Because they’ve been around since the early 19th century, they’re the star players in your favorite throwback craft cocktails. Think Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Sazeracs.
The curative properties of bitters still prevail, hence the common “non-alcoholic” drink of soda and bitters often drunk by those who are suffering from upset stomachs (especially discomfort caused by overindulging in the aforementioned craft cocktails the night before).
Bitters are great complements to liquors. Their complex flavor, accentuated by the bitter base, acts to round out a cocktail, tempering the sweetness and booziness of the average drink.
Most casual drinkers are familiar with the well-known bitters brands Angostura and Regan’s Orange Bitters, which have de facto presence on all bartenders’ lines.
A Little Bit About Making Bitters
Straight from the estimable Shoemaker.
The first thing Shoemaker will tell you about bitters is to separate them from tinctures. He laments the fact that the two are interchangeable terms in the mainstream mind, but the fact is that a tincture can be any kind of infused, high-proof concentrate, while bitters also involve specific barks and roots.
Shoemaker lists the five traditionally cardinal roots and barks that make up the base of a true bitter: gentian, quinine (cinchona bark, also the key to making tonic water), angostura bark, quassia (in chip form), and calamus root (similar to cherry bark).
Sounds like an esoteric mouthful, right?
One of the first reasons why many people don’t make their own bitters is because these things are pretty uncommon in most herb shops.
We have you covered.
Shoemaker recommends two websites where you’ll find what you need: Tenzing Momo and Frontier Co-op. He’ll tell you getting these things in bulk is important, but it’s a relative bulk—the roots and barks are intensely powerful, and as little as one pound will last you a whole year.
Making bitters will also take awhile—it’s an infusion, so you’ll have to give it around five weeks at the earliest to develop flavor. Shoemaker has a truffle bitters that took three years of marinating seasonal mushrooms, in stages, to make. (You can drink it in a Teardrop cocktail fittingly named Long Time Coming.)
But, we like to think that a patient drinker is an honorable one (that would be our assessment, not Shoemaker’s, though we’re inclined to think he’d agree). Stick it out, stock yourself up with generic dropper bottles, and know that you’ll have the sexiest home bar amongst your friends in two months.
And now we present Shoemaker’s recipes for your home-bar success.
You’ll need some airtight jamming jars, a pan or two, and access to a stove. Eventually, you’ll also need cheesecloth and a coffee filter.
The Slightly Easier One: Orange Bitters
500 ml high-proof vodka
Peels of 4 Valencia oranges
1/4 cup dried bitter orange peel
1/4 cup quassia chips
1 tbsp green cardamom pods, gently crushed
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp grain of paradise (optional)
2 tbsp 2-to-1 cane sugar syrup
Toast the cardamom, coriander, caraway, and quassia chips in a pan on medium-low heat for five minutes, until fragrant. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Chop the orange peel finely and place in an airtight jar. Add the toasted seeds and top with vodka. Let it stand for two weeks, agitating daily.
Pour off alcohol (keeping the solids) through a cloth, save it and seal again. Place the solids in a saucepan, cover with water and simmer for 10 minutes. Pour this mixture into another jar, cover and let stand for two additional weeks. Strain and add liquid to vodka maceration. Add cane syrup, and let it rest until it settles perfectly clear. Pour the entire solution through a coffee filter, and let rest for one week. Bottle and use.
The Slightly Harder One: Cherry Bark Bitters
2 1/2 cups overproof rye whiskey (Shoemaker recommends Wild Turkey 101)
20 g dried cherry bark
8 g quassia chips
8 g calamus
15 g angelica root (or dong quai, Chinese angelica, when possible)
6 g astragalus root
12 g cacao nibs
10 g marshmallow root
1 g dried lemon balm
Combine all ingredients in large Mason jar, and store in warm, dark place for three weeks, agitating daily.
After three weeks, separate liquid from solids with a fine-mesh sieve, and set liquid aside in separate jar. Place solids in a warm saucepan and cook until the ingredients begin to smoke, then add two cups of water. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by one half. Transfer mixture to another glass jar, and macerate for an additional two weeks. Strain, and add liquid to previous rye mixture.
In another heavy-bottomed pot, add one cup sugar. Turn heat to high and allow sugar to begin burning. Once sugar starts to bubble, begin stirring constantly. Gradually add one-third cup of water to the sugar, stirring constantly to incorporate. CAUTION: The liquid will bubble dramatically, and be very hot. Continue stirring until all the liquid is dissolved, then remove from heat and allow to cool (do not refrigerate, or it will harden).
Add the caramelized sugar to the combined liquids, and allow to macerate for two more weeks, agitating daily.
Strain through a coffee filter, bottle and use.
Make This At Home: The Perfect Manhattan
You’ll need Rittenhouse Rye, Carpano Antica, Lillet Blanc, some ice, a chilled glass, and your fabulous new bitters.
Build in a pint glass: 1.5 oz Rittenhouse (or 2 oz, if you’re feeling boozy), .5 oz Carpano, and .5 oz Lillet. Add either or both of your bitters to taste. Throw some ice in there, give it a good stir (a gentleman never shakes these), and strain into a fresh glass. Sip. Bask in the glow of your epicurean accomplishments.
Addendum: Don’t stop there! Get some dark rum, throw in your bitters, top with ginger ale. Get creative! Have some abandoned vodka lying around? Even a vodka soda is more delicious with bitters dribbled on top—you’ll get the scent every time you take a sip. Jazz up your semi-flat Diet Coke the same way. You get the idea. Go wild!
Many thanks to Daniel Shoemaker and Sean Hoard for their guidance and recipes!
Let us know your own tips and questions in the comments!