Why would you make your own bitters? Well, why not? We live in an age of DIY everything, from kombucha to jerky. We also live in an age when finding artisanal, small-batch, craft versions of everything edible and drinkable is pretty easy—cocktail bitters being no exception. But making your own bitters is a rewarding bit of alchemy, not to mention a great homemade gift, and they’re fantastic to use in myriad ways, not just in drinks.
What Are Bitters?
Cocktail bitters are potions that, with just a few drops, add backbone to a drink: The Sazerac wouldn’t be what it is without them.
Bitters originated centuries ago when apothecaries started combining herbs, bark, and berries with alcohol and promoting the results as medicinal tonics. But in 1906, selling bitters as health remedies was outlawed, so they’re now found only behind the bar.
Champagne Cocktail. (The second type of bitters is potable, typically poured as a digestif, a drink that aids digestion after a big meal. While the digestive-aid factor is up for debate, these distinctively flavored liqueurs are popular and include Fernet-Branca and Jägermeister in their ranks.)The ones we’re addressing here are deemed nonpotable—not because they are unsafe for human consumption, but because they’re not intended to be consumed alone due to their strong flavors and high alcohol content (usually between 70 and 90 proof). A few dashes of nonpotable bitters are used to round out a drink. They’re most commonly found in classic recipes such as the
The best-known (nonpotable) commercial bitters are practically household names: Peychaud’s, angostura, Regans’. Most were created during the golden age of the cocktail, at the turn of the 20th century, but in more recent years, modern, small-batch bitter makers have brought lots more to the market—and resources for making your own have proliferated too.
Check out an excerpt and recipe from “Botany at the Bar” for just one example (and lots of great info on tasting bitters).
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This set includes chocolate, grapefruit, lavender, and cardamom bitters, but that's only the beginning.
How Do You Make Bitters?
It’s a basic infusion, but recipes can get complex, with longs lists of herbs, spices, and botanicals. With our recipes below, we riffed on a few famous bitters (and threw in a couple wild cards for good measure)—but because the makers of the commercial varieties have kept their recipes under lock and key for over a century, and because they use such varied, hard-to-find ingredients (uncommon barks and dried berries among them), we can’t claim to have re-created them faithfully. We can promise they’re great in cocktails, and other applications.
Developing these formulas proved that many factors contribute to top-notch bitters. There are as many methods as there are mixologists, but the most important thing is how the bitters perform in a cocktail. Here are the main takeaways from our experiments in making bitters the best they can be:
Once you’ve settled on which brand of bitters you’re going to try to emulate, the next consideration is which liquor to steep the flavors in. The best choices are spirits with a high alcohol content, but you’ll also need to choose between unflavored varieties, such as grain alcohol or vodka, and more flavorful ones, such as rye. Keep in mind that higher-proof alcohols extract flavor more quickly but can leave a harsh aftertaste.
This is where you get to personalize your bitters and experiment. Be it bark, berry, or herb, something must be added to that alcohol to give it complexity and distinctiveness (and turn it into bitters). Most commercial bitters use relatively unknown ingredients such as gentian, but our recipes use items that can be found at high-end groceries or health food stores. You can venture farther afield if you’d like.
Aging and Agitating
These are key steps in flavor development. Aging (or steeping) helps extract flavor. Too little time and your bitters will be flat; too much and they’ll be unbalanced. Agitating (giving the mixture a shake every now and then) ensures that those flavors are dispersed throughout the mix, with no unexpected taste spikes.
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Perfect for bottling your bitters, whether to keep or to give as gifts.
How to Use Bitters
In drinks, obviously, but try using bitters in baking to replace some or all of the vanilla extract (or other extract called for), or add a few drops to things like roasted vegetables and even soup to add a little oomph. Just use a very light hand and taste as you go, because they can easily overwhelm if used too liberally.
Though bitters can no longer be sold legally as health remedies and we are not doctors, many people still turn to these mixtures to relieve ailments like hiccups (the suggested method: take a lemon wedge, coat it in sugar, then douse it with some bitters before biting down), upset stomachs (take a few dashes of bitters in a glass of club soda or ginger ale), and headaches.
We can only vouch for their culinary purposes.
Homemade Bitters Recipes
Here are some recipes to get you started.
The hue of these complex cardamom bitters—which comes courtesy of saffron—is what gives them their name. The recipe came to us via San Francisco restaurant Nopa, where it’s used in the Girasol cocktail, but add a scant sprinkle to the glaze for a lemon pound cake too. Get our Sunshine Bitters recipe.
Take the angostura bitters and the cherry out of your next Old Fashioned and use this twofer for a smart variation. Or use in place of some of the vanilla extract in your next batch of cupcakes. Get our Cherry-Vanilla Bitters recipe.
These were made exclusively for our Sparkling Campari Cocktail but would also add a refreshing jolt to simple sparkling water for a low-alcohol option. Add a dash to a winter fruit salad for another nuance of flavor too. Get our Grapefruit Bitters recipe.