Time: Patience is Required.
Making homemade bitters for cocktails is similar to making a homemade liqueur. You can think of a basic bitters recipe as being similar to making a very strong tea with alcohol in place of water. You simply place the flavoring ingredients in a high-proof alcoholic liquor of your choice and let the mixture sit for a period of time until the flavors from the ingredients are infused into the liquor. The difference between bitters and liqueurs is that you use a whole lot of one or more very bitter ingredients, gentian root being a classic choice and generally higher proportions of other ingredients, because you want a very concentrated flavor, including a lot of bitter taste, in your final bitters creation. Although sugar can be added to round out the flavor of bitters, you use less sugar than you would in a liqueur.
While liqueurs can be enjoyed by themselves or as a mixer with another alcohol, only several dashes of bitters are used to flavor a cocktail. And consider those little dashes like flavor bullets. Any drink will be instantly changed, and probably improved a great deal. Rather just sweet and sour, you’ve now added a third and most important element to the flavor profile: bitter. This is not to mention the other flavors within the bitters, and the aromatics (scent) it adds, all of which add to the experience of a great cocktail. The days of syrupy sweet mixed drinks are passing. We are going back to the pre-prohibition times when cocktails were full-flavored and complex, except now, they are even more-so.
Keep in mind that your homemade bitters will not be as concentrated as storebought bitters, so you’ll usually have to use more of it. At the end of this article will be a very basic “old time” recipe for gentian bitters. To this recipe, anything can be added or subtracted. The process is the same regardless of ingredients used. Before we get to the bitters recipe, let’s go over the equipment and the types of ingredients needed. I have tried to make it as easy as possible for you to find the equipment, and some typical ingredients, on Amazon, but you may have a specialty store or other favorite online source.
You only need a few simple pieces of equipment to make your homemade bitters.
- Two Large Jars with Lids
- Fine mesh strainer
- Cheesecloth for filtering (although a coffee filter can be used, it is very slow. Several layers of cheesecloth works much better)
- Small bottles (hot sauce dasher bottles work great and eliminate the need for a separate dropper)
Labels for bottles
Types of ingredients for Homemade Bitters
*Liquors: you can use any sort of liquor you want, but it is best not to use a liquor with a flavor added, unless you want to make a bitters that features that flavor. For instance, you could use a cinnamon whiskey to make a cinnamon bitters. Whiskey is not a “neutral” spirit, it will add a lot of its own flavor to your bitters, and this may or may not be desirable to you.
Your choice may depend on the types of cocktails in which you plan to use your bitters. If you plan on making old-fashioned cocktails, like the “Old Fashioned” or Manhattans, use whiskey. If you want to make rum-based drinks, you can use a dark rum or a whiskey. If you want really fruity drinks of the type that generally rely on vodka, use vodka. Try to get something that is at least 100 proof, or 50% alcohol by volume (this simplifies your choices). Grain alcohol can be mixed with another more flavorful liquor to boost the proof.
You don’t need to use top-shelf liquor for bitters, the cheap stuff should work very well, but it is up to you. This is your bitters! A cheap whiskey bitter cans still be used in a good whiskey and will still add that oomph you’re looking for. The most important part, really, is the high percentage of alcohol which will extract the many bitter and other components from the ingredients.
The ingredients for bitters are often called “botanicals.” This is just a fancy way of saying that the ingredients come from plants.
- Bitter ingredients: bitter roots, herbs, spices, and bitter citrus peels can be used to make the bitter component, the most important part of the recipe. You can use more than one bitter ingredient. Up to half of the ingredients will be a bittering ingredient.
- Examples of bitter ingredients: gentian root, cinchona bark, angelica root, wild cherry bark, sasparilla, black walnut leaf, hops, licorice root, citrus peel (orange peel, grapefruit peel).
- Other flavoring and aromatic ingredients: Almost anything you can imagine to add desirable flavors and aromas: Various spices can be used, such as anise seed, star anise, caraway, cardamom, cassia cinnamon bark, juniper berries, vanilla, ginger cloves, allspice, nutmeg, etc. Many of these spices themselves are quite bitter and will work along with the primary bitter ingredients.
- Herbs and flowers: Flowers both flavor and perfume your bitters. Chamomile is a classic bitters ingredient, and lavender is very popular today. Other choices include hibiscus and rose. All sorts of herbs can be used, including of course, mint and all herbs in the mint family. Sage, rosemary, thyme, etc. are other examples.
- Other ingredients: Nuts, fruits (including dried fruits like raisins), coffee beans (another bitter), cacao nibs, etc.
Basic Bitters Recipe
Of course, any good bitters starts with a liquor. We will use 4 cups of liquor, all together. You can, however, use all one liquor or combine different liquors. For example, you could use two cups of whiskey and two cups of rum. Or, you could use all vodka. It is really up to you. This basic recipe is a gentian-orange bitters. You can take out the gentian or the orange and add any ingredients of your choice. Chamomile would work well with this basic recipe.
4 cups liquor (whiskey, rum, vodka, etc.)
2 tbsp gentian root
1 tbsp green cardamom pods
2 tbsp dried bitter orange peel, or several strips of fresh peel of orange, lemon, lime, etc.)
2 cups hot water (not needed until the end)
Sweetener, if desired
Combine the liquor and all the ingredients in a large glass jar with a sealable lid. Place the lid on the jar and seal tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and set it in a kitchen cabinet or other room-temperature place (keep away from high heat sources) for 14 to 21 days. Shake the jar well every day. The longer you rest it the more flavor will be imparted to the alcohol. Bitters are meant to be strong.
Line a fine-mesh strainer with a couple layers of cheesecloth and strain the contents of the jar into a clean bowl. Once all the liquid has strained through, gather up the cheesecloth into a ball to squeeze out all the excess liquid you can.
Set aside the filtered liquid. Place the now drained solid ingredients into a saucepan and mash them with a spoon or other instrument. Then pour the 2 cups hot water into the saucepan with the solid ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
Allow the heated mixture to cool a bit.
Strain the mixture through a sieve (without the cheesecloth) into a clean bowl.
If you would like to sweeten your bitters, you can now add up to 3/4 cups of sugar, brown sugar, palm sugar, or another sweetener to the liquid. Allow the liquid to cool completely.
Combine the cooled liquid and the alcohol bitters based you strained before together. Transfer the new mix to a large clean glass jar with a sealable lid, just like you did at the beginning. Shake the jar well and let this second jar rest for another 7 days, shaking vigorously once a day.
After 7 days, stop shaking the jar (before, you introduced some solid sediments into the mixture because you didn’t use cheesecloth [on purpose], now you want to let the sediments settle, making it easy to completely filter them later). After the jar has rested undisturbed for 7 days, carefully drain and filter the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer and several layers of cheese-cloth into a pourable container. Try to leave any sediments in the bottom of the jar. Your bitters are now done.
Using a funnel, pour the bitters into several small jars, like the hot sauce dasher bottles recommended above. Make some great cocktails and adding a few dashes of your bitters to taste.
This same method can be used to make any kind of bitters you would like.
Further Notes on Some Classic Bitters
You may find source advising the use of “burnt sugar” which is basically sugar that has been caramelized. If sugar is burnt enough, it will lend a bitter flavor all its own. However, old-time recipes for bitters which called for burnt sugar were only using it for color, i.e. “caramel coloring.” Brown sugar will lend color and some sweetness. Molasses can be used as well.
Stoughton’s Bitters (The First Widely Marketed Brand)
If you add colombo root (a.k.a. calumba) a very bitter root often used in aromatic bitters, and chamomile to the above recipe, and omit the cardamom, you’ll have something much like a classic bitters called Stoughton’s Bitters, which was the first brand of bitters to be widely marketed (most bitters were made individually by pharmacists at first). They were created by Richard Stoughton in England in 1712 and began being exported to the U.S. in 1730. His used a combination of brandy and some grain alcohol as the spirit base. Many existing recipes found in old books also call for snakeroot, a toxic herb better left alone.
If you care to explore more old-time recipes for bitters, keep in mind that many of the recipes were for decanter bitters. These were not as strong and were diluted with a lot of water to make them suitable for serving by the glass. To mimic the taste but get a strong bitters, the water must be reduced and the steeping time may need to be lengthened. Jerry Thomas’ “Own Decanter Bitters” were meant to be served by the glass and the instructions given in his famous book on bartending didn’t even call for any particular period of time for steeping. He simply instructed pouring Santa Cruz rum over the ingredients and serving in pony glasses, and then replacing the rum when the bitters ran out. His used snakeroot, by the way, which is a liver toxin and illegal for sale. I would advise not to worry about matching the old-time bitters but to simply use them for inspiration in creating your own. Many of the roots and herbs used in those days, however, have been determined to be unsafe to use.
Don’t want to make your own bitters? Try one of the classic gentian-based bitters like Angostura Aromatic Bitters or Peychaud’s.