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.
- 4 to 6 grams sugar (about a teaspoon)
- 4 to 6 grams bitters (about a teaspoon)
- 60 grams bourbon or rye (2 ounces)
- Place the sugar and bitters in a rocks glass and muddle and stir to get the sugar dissolving.
- Add the bourbon or rye and stir.
- Add ice and a squeeze of lemon (or a twist or orange zest).
If you liked this post, take a look at these links:
- My cocktail posts that use bitters: the Berkshire Martinez, the Perfect Manhattan, and, of course, the Rum Old-Fashioned.
- Watch the History of Whiskey from the History Channel.
- The Five O’Clock Cocktail Blog is written and shaken by Rose Maura Lorre.
- My favorite bar in Cleveland is the Velvet Tango Room.
© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.