Cocktail culture has come a long way since I trained as a cocktail barman and sommelier at culinary school in the early 1980s also working behind a bar, at weekends. I spent most of my time playing with pousse cafés and tequila sunrises in-between serving the more mundane Gallic and Irish coffees.
I rarely reached for the bottle of Angostura bitters, with its dirty old label, tucked away behind the obligatory copy of the Bartender’s Guide. The only time I did reach for the them was when Paul, the owner’s son, ordered the occasional pink gin but after reading this post i decided to try to make some for my kitchen playtime.
What are Bitters?
Bitters are amazing, essential, and potent flavouring extracts that can lift, elevate and transform any drink to which they’re added. put most simply bitters are flavours suspended in alcohol.
I like to describe to bitters as “seasoning or salt and pepper” for cocktails. They add a little kick to some drinks but are the real essence in others like the old fashioned and Manhattans.
After spending days and nights reading so many books both old and new, I eventually came to the conclusion that there isn’t one perfect go to recipe for creating bitters. It’s all about trial and error, experimenting testing, it depends on your palette, it depends on the herbs and ingredients you can get hold of.
I discovered methods that used bittering agents (herbs and barks and roots) some of which need to sit for two days others two months before the extraction is just right; some methods use one jar and one jar only; other methods use six or seven separate jars before blending into the ultimate flavour bomb.
But let’s look a little closer.
The Ingredients for Bitters
Agents used for bitters recipes need be a balance between two things bittering agents. and flavouring which can make up anywhere from 10 to 50% of the total blend they can contain plants like angelica root, artichoke leaf, barberry root, black walnut leaf, burdock root, calamus root, cinchona bark, citrus peel, dandelion root and leaf, devil’s club root, gentian root, horehound, liquorice root, mugwort, Oregon grape root, orris root, quassia bark, sarsaparilla, wild cherry bark, and wormwood.
Flavouring and aromatic agents
Fulfil the function of rounding out the bitters and can include almost any herb, spice, flower, fruit, or nut. use organic ingredients where possible, especially when it comes to fruit peels which are often wax coated. Here are a few examples:
Spices – allspice, aniseed, caraway, cardamom, cassia, celery seed, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel, ginger, juniper berries, nutmeg, peppercorns, star anise, vanilla beans
Herbs & Flowers – chamomile, hibiscus, hops, lavender, lemongrass, mint, rose, rosemary, sage, thyme, yarrow
Fruits – fresh or dried citrus peel (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit), dried fruit (apples, cherries, figs, raisins)
Nuts – toasted almonds, pecans, walnuts, etc.
Beans – cacao beans, cocoa nibs, coffee beans
Here, the proof of the alcohol is more important than the brand. What’s happening is the alcohol is pulling the essential oils (and flavours and aromas) from ingredients, and by using a high-proof spirit 100 proof or 50% alcohol by volume (ABV). will extract more flavour, more quickly. You should use the highest-quality spirits you can afford, if you want the most (and best) flavour to make it into the bottle.
How Bitters are Made
Having done the hard work of sourcing all of your herbs, roots, flowers, barks, fruit peels, and bittering agents, it's all all over but for the steeping: Combine your dry ingredients with a high proof alcohol and let them infuse.
Different spices infuse at different rates, the time will vary depending on the recipe. You may also need to shake the jar every day, the infusion should become more pronounced, flavourful and complex.
Now that you’ve put all that work into sourcing and infusing and waiting, you’re only a well-chosen bottle away from enjoying these bitters. I find dark glass bottles, with droppers, are the best combination are affordable, and usable.
How to Use Bitters
Bitters like angostura acts as an aromatic bitter, providing a flavour connection between the base spirit and your sweetener, my chocolate bitters fall on the “savoury” side, adding layers of complexity and amplifying the base spirit.
Chocolate bitters are perfect for cocktails with dark spirits – like aged rum, or a good bourbon. To brighten up and deepen a spirit pair them with a citrus bitter.
How Long Do Bitters Last?
The good news – if you’re someone who tends to use bitters sparingly – is that bitters will never go bad. You can check in on them in five years if you’d like, but because of the high-proof alcohol, they’ll have much longer than that in them enjoy.