How To Make Cocktail Bitters
How do you make bitters?
Actually, this is another technique that is not hard to master.
You probably see bitters as an enigma, an unknown and mythical concoction that you could only find in bars.
Don’t be fooled.
Yes they have exotic ingredients and yes there are some steps to follow but making bitters is easy and a chance to really get innovative.
Bartenders have now taken to creating everything from scratch, which harks back to how the early bartenders used to approach the craft. creating all sorts including Oleo Saccharum, syrups, infusions and bitters.
We have been doing some experimenting at HQ and will take you through our recipe for our TCS House Bitters and how you can make your own bitters, really easily at your bar or home.
What Are Bitters?
Now bitters to the uninitiated are the bartenders version of salt and pepper, the ultimate liquid seasoning. They are designed to improve, align and unearth flavour in drinks.
It’s an alcohol-based flavouring, which is made by infusing botanical flavours into spirit – generally a white or dark spirit which largely depends on the flavour profile you are going for.
So, lighter bitters for those lighter cocktail recipes would use a vodka and a more robust dark spirit for punchy flavour profiles.
In terms of the myriad botanicals, these include spices, bark roots, seeds and fruits to name a few and the combinations for flavour profiles are endless, meaning you can have a heck of a lot of fun making bitters to compliment your drinks.
So in conclusion, well-made bitters used in the right way can completely transform cocktails and drinks adding flavour, complexity and depth.
What Botanicals Can I Use?
The botanical options are numerous. Now when creating your botanical mix think about the type of end product you want. Something will bitter notes or floral undertones? Do you want something light or punchy in flavour?
This is important as it will dictate how you put the botanicals together. Think of creating bitters as creating a recipe. Look to see what flavours complement one another.
If you are unsure use your nose, taste and the internet to see what flavour combinations work.
As with any recipe, it’s a test and measure scenario and you will need to prepare to try out combinations before striking gold.
Usually makeup 10 to 50% of the ingredient blend and may include plants like Angelica Root, Artichoke Leaf, Walnut Leaf, Burdock Root, Gentian Root, Cinchona Bark, Liquorice Root, Quassia Bark or Wormwood to name a few.
Now some of the below may look uber exotic and you may not have even heard of some of the ingredients.
Fortunately, we have a little thing called the internet at our disposal and basically all of the ingredients can be picked up online. Just lookout for a company that sells barks, herbs and roots. We get ours from here https://www.baldwins.co.uk/herbs/herbs-roots-barks/herbs-roots-barks
Allspice, Aniseed, caraway, cardamom, cassia, celery seed, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel, ginger or juniper berries are just some of the spices you can use to flavour your bitters.
Herbs and Flowers
Chamomile, hibiscus, hops, lavender, linden flower, lemongrass, mint, rose, rosemary, coriander, sage, thyme, yarrow
Fresh or dried citrus peel (orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit), apples, cherries, figs, raisins
Toasted almonds, pecans, walnuts
Cacao beans, cocoa nibs, coffee beans
In addition, bitters may be lightly sweetened with simple syrup, caramel, molasses, honey etc. They may also be diluted with distilled water, bringing the final product no lower than 80 to 90 proof or 40 to 45% ABV.
Things You Need To Make Bitters
There are a few items we need to get hold of to make bitters.
Kilner Jars are the home and professional bartenders best friend. Super versatile and allows for all manner of infusion, steeping and storage. We recommend 1 liter, 500ml and a 250ml for various volumes. Reason being is you probably want to test out some flavour combos in the smaller jars before going all out.
A high ABV white or dark spirit is good. Minimum 40% so you will be looking at a vodka, whiskey, or rum. When selecting your spirit you want something neutral, gin is out and you don’t want any flavoured vodkas or peaty whiskey’s.
Oh, and don’t spend a fortune on the base spirit, you do not need to. Just use a reasonable quality product.
This is important, a sieve actually is not enough. The muslin cloth has a super fine filtration effect and will get all of the tiny particles removed from the liquid after it has been steeped.
We want to remove all of the tiny particles as they will continue to flavour the product and will make it cloudy. This has the potential to ruin cocktails when added.
Get your hands on a varied selection. You may have some stuff in the store cupboard already but it’s likely you’ll have to invest in some of the more niche ingredients.
How To Make Homemade Bitters
1. Ingredient Selection
This is very important as this stage of pairing ingredients will be the basis of how the end product tastes. First up, consider the type of bitters you want to produce. What sort of flavour profile are you aiming for? Some options might be floral, fruity, herbal or citrus. Try and match botanicals that complement one another.
2. Add The Ingredients
Place all the chosen botanicals into the Kilner jar and then pour your chosen alcohol over the top. We mix 1 part botanicals to 5 parts alcohol as a guide. Be sure to agitate the botanical ingredients with a spoon to start the flavours mingling in the liquid. We always recommend labelling with the ingredients and date of batching to keep track – particularly if you are making multiple batches at the same time.
As with a typical infusion, the mixture needs to be agitated (given a good shake) every day, this is critical to ensure that the flavours mingle and the botanicals are evenly infused into the liquid. This infusion period is about two weeks approximately. You will have a good idea of when the bitters are ready by following your nose. After a week or so the spirit will start to take on the character of the botanicals.
Once you are happy that the bitters have taken on the appropriate flavour it is now time to strain. Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth into a clean Kilner Jar to eliminate the botanicals. With these botanicals, crush them with a muddler, then add them to a quantity of water (equal to the original spirit mix) and boil up for 5 minutes. Cool this infused water and put into a jar and infuse for 1 week (agitate the mixture daily)
5. Final Blend
After a week it is then time to blend the alcohol and water infusions. Strain the botanical water to remove the bits through a muslin once again into a measuring jug. Then blend equal parts water and alcohol together. The mixture needs a final addition of a sweetener, you can either make gomme or buy some off the self. We tend to add 5g to every 100g of infusion but it’s a matter of taste. Once the blend is complete, leave to infuse for a few more days with a daily agitation.
At last, time to bottle. Use small pipette bottles similar to these ones. They are widely available and allow you to dispense your bitters easily and sparingly (bitters have a super-powerful flavour so need to be used with caution) With the mixture, carefully decant the liquid into the pipette (you may need a funnel here) We the like to label ours with a bespoke label. Bitters last a long time so no sweat on that front.
The above process is one which is arguably less intensive than the purists method. The other method, which we would recommend for pros is to make separate infusion or tincture of each botanical and then blend them to the taste. This method takes into account that different ingredients infuse at different rates and it gives you more control over the outcome. You can come up with new ideas while infusing the ingredients which will also allow you experimenting more.