Patent medicines. Miracle elixirs. Bitters. Once purported to cure everything from fever and the common cold to insomnia, these bitter—hence the name—infusions have experienced something of a renaissance as cocktail additives. Versatile tinctures that can turn boring, too-sweet drinks into dangerously tasty cocktails, bitters are an essential ingredient on any home bar.
But which ones? Sure, you could make do with the old stalwart Angostura and New Orleans’ classic Peychaud’s, or you could explore the dizzying array of small-batch, craft-brewed concoctions no doubt being whipped up this very moment by elaborately mustachioed aficionados. Thanks to these intrepid souls, you can currently buy just about any flavor of bitters that you can imagine. But it’s going to cost you. At 15 to 30 bucks a pop for some of the more esoteric varieties, a bitters habit gets expensive fast (trust me).
So like every bar or restaurant that touts its “cocktail program”, the would-be bitters devotee is better served by jumping on the home-brewed bitters bandwagon.
Thankfully, homemade bitters are easy to make. All you need is a bottle or two of overproof booze, an assortment of herbs and spices, and a little patience. Follow a few simple steps, and you’ll be whipping up batches of your signature snake oil in no time.
Step 1: Get some booze.
The actual variety isn’t as important as the proof. Whatever spirit you choose—rye, bourbon, rum, vodka or high-octane grain alcohol—you want something over 100 proof. I like to use Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon—it’s enough for a flavorful infusion, but it’s not eyebrow-melting strong. How you intend to use your bitters should also influence your choice of bottles. My cocktail tastes run toward the brown end of the spectrum, so I use bourbon or rye. Like Martinis and gin-based cocktails? Use vodka or Everclear instead. Want to explore some riffs on classic tiki drinks? Try rum.
Step 2: Toss in some stuff.
Okay, it’s not quite that easy. First, you need bittering agents—these are things like cinchona bark, gentian, licorice root and wormwood. Some can be a little hard to find, but a good spice shop, herbalist or brewing supply store should have what you need. Failing that, there’s always the Internet.
Next, you’ll need something to provide aroma and flavor. Think aromatic spices like cardamom, clove, vanilla bean and anise as well as citrus peels, seasonal fruit, chocolate, nuts or coffee.
Step 3: Wait.
How long varies depending on the strength of your liquor and the ingredients you’re infusing, but it generally takes close to three weeks. Keep the jars out of direct sunlight and shake them daily. After two weeks, strain the solids out of the bittering jar and add that liquid to the flavor-infusing jar. Close tightly, then let the combined jar sit for another week. Strain through cheesecloth or coffee filters (this takes forever, so be patient) and bottle—you can go with a large bottle, but I like to use cheap eyedropper bottles because they’re easy to give as gifts.
Here’s a recipe to get you started.
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