If you’ve ever purchased cocktail bitters, you know they’re pretty pricey. They can cost as much as $20 for a few fluid ounces. When I came across a book on Amazon that was all about the history of bitters, along with cocktail recipes and recipes for making your own bitters, I was intrigued. One impulse purchase later, I was on my way to turning my kitchen into a bitters lab.
The book in question is Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas by Brad Thomas Parsons. I loved this book. As a history-loving, booze-hound/bibliophile, I was pretty much predisposed to love this book. I highly recommend it, even if you don’t plan to make your own bitters. (Note: don’t buy the Kindle version—the photos in this book are amazing; you want the hard copy.)
If you do want to make your own bitters, this book has everything you need. Tips and tricks, recommendations for the proper tools, recipes, and where to find ingredients and supplies. There are 13 bitters recipes in the book. I chose five that looked both interesting and useful: Celery, Meyer Lemon, Charred Cedar, Apple, and Grapefruit.
The first step in any endeavor is to gather your supplies. I already owned items like proper knives, zesters, peelers, funnels, strainers, and a mortar and pestle. I needed to buy Mason jars, cheesecloth, and small bottles and labels for the finished product. Mr. Thomas recommends wide-mouth 1-quart Mason jars, which I found at my local ACE Hardware for $2 apiece. (Note: Amazon totally failed me in this department. It was going to cost a fortune to buy the jars from them.)
Thomas also recommended Specialty Bottle (clever name) in Seattle for bottling supplies. Again, their prices ended up being far more competitive than Amazon’s. I decided on 4-ounce brown glass bottles with dropper lids. The other best option is a dasher cap (like what’s on a soy sauce bottle), but I like the apothecary-feel to dropper bottles. I bought 30 bottles, assuming each of my five recipes would fill about six 4-ounce bottles. (Yield on each recipe is just short of three cups, or about 20-24 ounces.) Knowing that I would have lots of bitters on hand at the end of this experiment, I decided to give a bottle to each of my parents, siblings, and in-laws as Christmas gifts.
Next up was the actual ingredients. Some of the items were easily found at the grocery store: lemongrass, fruits and vegetables, honey, sugar. The base alcohols (Everclear and high-proof whiskey) were available at my local liquor store. And a few random things we had on hand because MixMasterRhead makes homemade tonic, which also uses cassia chips, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, and cinchona bark.
But many of the herbs and botanicals needed to be ordered online. The book recommended a shop called Tenzing Momo in Seattle. I was able to find cardamom pods, celery seeds, coriander seeds, gentian root, hops, and wild cherry bark for much less than anywhere else on the Internet. I bought the remaining items from Amazon: cheesecloth, cedar grilling planks, and white peppercorns.
I bought labels from an online shop called Bottle Your Brand. I had used them before to make labels for my homemade vanilla extract. They have a nice design tool that lets you play around with fonts and layout and see a proof before placing your order. I recommend them.
Total costs: approximately $270 (see estimated breakdown below)
$10.00 ACE Hardware
$23.25 Tenzing Momo
$47.00 Specialty Bottle
$47.29 Bottle Your Brand
This works out to be about $9 per four-ounce bottle. By way of comparison, a four-pack of Scrappy’s Exotic Bitters is $25-$35 (depending on where you buy them), and each of those bottles is only 1/2 an ounce. So you’re paying 2-3 times more for the same amount. On the other hand, a pack of Fee Brothers bitters is around $65 for six four-ounce bottles, so those cost nearly the same per bottle as making them yourself. The upshot is that you should make your own bitters because you want to, not because you want to save yourself money. (You also have to factor in the cost of your time and labor.)
Bitters are essentially a concentrated flavoring agent made by steeping botanicals, herbs, fruits, and a bittering agent in high-proof alcohol. When making clear bitters, use high-proof vodka, such as Everclear. When making dark bitters, use high-proof whiskey, like Wild Turkey 101. And use the finished product in cocktails with matching spirits: clear bitters with vodka and gin; dark bitters with whiskey and rum. Once the initial prep work is done, the process is fairly easy, if long. One batch of bitters takes about a month to prepare—but most of that time is passive, with the bitters resting in a Mason jar.
Below are two recipes from the book that I liked best out of the five I tried. The Charred Cedar bitters are great in Manhattans (or hot chocolate!) but they were by far the most difficult to make. Charring the cedar plank was tedious and time-consuming, and then breaking it up into small pieces was almost impossible. I don’t think I’ll ever make those again. But the other four were all relatively easy (once Meyer lemons FINALLY came in stock at Whole Foods).
Zest of 2 grapefruit, cut into strips with a paring knife
1/4 cup chopped dried grapefruit peel
1/2 teaspoon gentian root
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
6 green cardamom pods
1 teaspoon dried hops
2 cups high-proof vodka, or more as needed
1 cup water
2 tablespoons honey
Make the dried grapefruit peel ahead of time. Preheat oven to 200°F. Wash and dry the fruit. Peel off the zest in long strips using a zester or paring knife. Finely chop the zest strips. Spread the chopped zest on a baking sheet and put it in the oven until dried, at least 30 minutes. Store in an airtight container. To yield 1/2 cup of dried fruit, use 3 grapefruit, 8 lemons, 8 limes, or 6 oranges.
To make the bitters, place all of the ingredients except for the vodka, honey, and water in a quart-sized Mason jar or other large glass container with a lid. Pour in the 2 cups of vodka, adding more if necessary so that all the ingredients are covered. Seal the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks, shaking the jar once a day.
After 2 weeks, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized jar to remove the solids. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Squeeze the cheesecloth over the jar to release any excess liquid and transfer the solids to a small saucepan. Cover the jar and set aside.
Cover the solids in the saucepan with the 1 cup of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover the saucepan, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool completely. Once cooled, add the contents of the saucepan (both liquid and solids) to another quart-sized Mason jar. Cover the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 1 week, shaking the jar daily.
After 1 week, strain the jar with the liquid and solids through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized Mason jar. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Discard the solids. Add this liquid to the jar containing the original vodka solution.
Allow the mixture to stand at room temperature for 3 days. At the end of 3 days, skim off any debris that floats to the surface and pour the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined funnel one last time to remove any solids.
Using a small funnel, decant the bitters into smaller jars or bottles and label. If there’s any sediment left in the bottles, or if the liquid is cloudy, give the bottle a shake before using. The bitters will last indefinitely, but for optimum flavor, use within a year.
Peels from 6 medium to large apples, preferably organic
Zest of 1/2 lemon, cut into strips with a paring knife
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon allspice berries
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cassia chips
1/2 teaspoon cinchona bark
2 cups high-proof bourbon or rye, or more as needed
1 cup water
2 tablespoons rich syrup
To make the rich syrup, bring 2 cups Demerara or turbinado sugar and 1 cup water to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Stir occasionally to dissolve the sugar. At the first crack of a boil, remove from the heat. Let cool completely, then store the syrup in a glass jar with a lid. The syrup will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month.
To make the bitters, place all of the ingredients except for the whiskey, rich syrup, and water in a quart-sized Mason jar or other large glass container with a lid. Pour in the 2 cups of whiskey, adding more if necessary so that all the ingredients are covered. Seal the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks, shaking the jar once a day.
After 1 week, strain the jar with the liquid and solids through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized Mason jar. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Discard the solids. Add this liquid to the jar containing the original whiskey solution.
Add the rich syrup to the jar and stir to incorporate, then cover and shake to fully dissolve the syrup.
I really enjoyed making my own bitters and will definitely do it again—but we have many bottles of bitters to get through first before I start making more. Now that I have the basic approach down, I may go off-book next time and create something new. I’m thinking Rosemary bitters would liven up a martini quite nicely!