Homemade bitters. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Ingredients for homemade bitters: the woody shreds are Angelica root, the bitter component, along with aromatics, star anise, pepper, cloves, allspice. Photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman

The woody shreds are Angelica root, the bitter component, along with aromatics, star anise, pepper, cloves, allspice

Straining bitters after 1 month’s maceration. Photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Bitters, strained.

Bitters, strained.

I love bitters for the complexity they bring to any drink, or situation in life for that matter, and I use them with a heavy hand in cocktails. One of my favorite cocktails is the Old-Fashioned (see below), so simple, so satisfying: whiskey, sugar, bitters.

But what exactly are bitters? You don’t really know until you make some yourself.

Bitters are simply flavor extractions. Happily, our neighbor Tobin Ludwig is one of the founders of Hella Bitters, which makes a variety of splendid bitters (about 1500 bottles a month), and he gave me a quick lesson in their making.

“I totally encourage people to make their own bitters at home,” Tobin told me this summer. “It’s a fun experiment.”

There is a single key to bitters: the bittering agent itself, most commonly angelica root or gentian root. The rest is primarily flavoring. To extract the bitterness, you need alcohol. The flavorings can be any you wish, the alcohol any you wish. But Tobin started me out simply. Use a high-proof vodka, 110 proof, cut with water by 50%. Combine the above ingredients (angelica root he gave to me, pictured above, in a cool little sack; star anise, pepper, clove, allspice; other common spices are cinnamon, orange peel, and cardamom) with the alcohol and water in a mason jar for one month, shaking it every now and then. Strain it through cloth. That’s it. Your own personalized bitters.

You can buy angelica and gentian root from the Dandelion Botanical Company. Or search Google; there many sources. The rest of the flavorings can be found in grocery stores. Use the freshest you can find—that is, if you don’t remember how long ago you bought the allspice sitting in your spice rack, best to get some fresh.

If you want some great bitters recipes from an expert (and numerous great cocktails), get Brad Parsons’s book Bitters. It’s a truly lovely volume.

But if the work day is done, have an Old-Fashioned tonight with whatever is on hand, one of the best cocktails there is, thanks to the magical essence called bitters.

The old fashioned. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

The Old-Fashioned. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

The Old-Fashioned

  • 4 to 6 grams sugar (about a teaspoon)
  • 4 to 6 grams bitters (about a teaspoon)
  • 60 grams bourbon or rye (2 ounces)
  • Lemon
  1. Place the sugar and bitters in a rocks glass and muddle and stir to get the sugar dissolving.
  2. Add the bourbon or rye and stir.
  3. Add ice and a squeeze of lemon (or a twist or orange zest).

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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

 

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7 Wonderful responses to “Friday Cocktail: The Old-Fashioned
w/Homemade Bitters”

  • Elsewhere

    A rye Old Fashioned, please. Always a classic, a simple and delicious way to demarcate between afternoon and evening. Out of curiosity, Mr. R., are there any commercial varieties of bitters that you think worth the shelf space?

  • Rich

    I recently made a batch of smoked cardoon bitters that some bartender friends are playing with.

  • Patrick

    The great thing about Maker’s is that you don’t need more sugar!

    Seriously though. Totally agree on the rye– cuts through nicely and doesn’t end up over-sweet.

  • allen

    I love the little airline size bottle from Hella bitters, with that little Einstein guy with the glasses. Sure glad they don’t mind us making our own, I always feel bad mentioning making bitters, like I’m taking away there business, I thank them for the inspiration and wish them great success.

    I have a beverage that I would like to mention, inspired from this blog.

    I freeze a knob of ginger and an organic lemon – so you always have some on hand, and it makes more volume when grated.

    Steep some jamaica flower (dried hibiscus) available at Latin market.
    Use a micro plane and grate the frozen lemon – peel, pith, seeds and all, grate the ginger into the liquid, strain through a cloth lined fine mesh strainer.
    Serve over ice add sparkling water and sweeten with just a little massa syrup – from the Old Infatuation cocktail post.

    Of course you can add a lil alcohol of your choice, but it’s good as is.

    Cheers!

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    I have a buddy that wants to join this MOS but I don’t have
    any insight for him..

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