To create a uniquely flavored cocktail with multiple textures, adding bitters is a must. Bitters help align flavors and are to cocktails what spices are to food: they enrich the flavor and add nuanced flavors to the end product.
“Bitter is the salt and pepper of cocktails,” says Guy Jackson, mixologist at Hush at Montage Palmetto Bluffs in Bluffton, SC. “A little goes a long way, and just like spices, you can mix different bitters to get different effects.”
While it can be as simple as just rushing to the store and grabbing a bottle, creating your own bitters from scratch makes for extra-one-of-a-kind, personalized cocktails. In fact, the flavor additive you’ve been looking for might already be sitting on your spice rack – all you need is a spirit, some spice and a little imagination.
Don’t miss a drop
Get the latest beer, wine and cocktail culture straight to your inbox.
“Although there are many quality bitters choices on the market today, they can’t cover all flavors,” says Jackson. “By making your own bitters, you can fine-tune your bitters.”
Before you reach for the spices and herbs in your cupboard, first choose a liquor that won’t overwhelm your taste buds. “It’s best to start with a strong, neutral flavor,” says Fitz Bailey, mixologist and brand ambassador for Coopers’ Craft Bourbon.
Look for a liquor that is at least 150 proof to ensure the highest concentration of flavor (for example, if you are making your own vanilla bean extract you should use a 150 proof liquor), although going down to 100 proof works well for less intense flavors. Bailey notes that vodkas and Everclear work best when making any type of bitter, whether you’re looking for a deep walnut flavor to enhance your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, or you want to add a jalapeño lime kick too your margarita. Both lighter and more complex bitters combinations will benefit from using a clear spirit that has no competing flavors (which is why tequila, gin, and rum are not recommended).
However, bourbon can serve as a background for your blend. Bourbon can enhance bitter brews like vanilla, orange, cherry, chocolate, and other flavors typically found in whiskey-based cocktails. Which bottling you use is entirely up to your personal preferences; Consider the undertones of your chosen bourbon and refine herbs and spices with complementary essences. Using a taste wheel can help you decide which tastes to enhance and which to downplay.
“Assuming you wanted to make chocolate bitters, the great thing is that you only have to look for a chocolate flavor. So cocoa, you would definitely want that for chocolate. But then there are other flavors like cinnamon, vanilla bean, and even wild cherry rind if you want to go a little crazy,” says Bailey. “Using a flavor wheel is a great way to experiment—especially if you’re new to it.”
Make it spicier
“Generally, there’s a base of ‘bitter’ spices that are common in many bitters,” says Jackson. Some of these are gentian, a super-bitter root found in many aromatic bitters; cinchona, which contains quinine; wormwood, the main ingredient in absinthe; aromatic angelica root; slightly bitter artichoke leaf; and cassia chips, a bark from the cinnamon family.
Jackson says that when deciding what kind of bitters to make, you should think about what complements or even compliments the flavors of your favorite cocktails — traditional or not. Jackson notes that star anise, lemongrass, peppercorns, and juniper berries are some of his favorites for making his own bitters, which he uses in many of the cocktails he makes both at home and at Hush.
Bailey takes it a little more traditionally. He favors cinnamon, cardamom and Chinese five spices in his creations, but he doesn’t shy away from something more intriguing.
“A lot of the baking spices are really good, depending on what kind of drink you want. And then there are some with wonderful, bitter elements. If you wanted to make a boulevard or negroni, you might want to use ginseng root spice or cassava chips to accentuate the flavors,” says Bailey.
While fresh is always best, you can also use ground spices—although there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind. As you’d expect, fresh spices give you a hefty amount of flavor in less time, but ground spices will still pack a punch in the end. However, they must be heavily screened – and even then, some particles may remain. These particles will continue to penetrate and amplify the bitters over time, something to keep in mind if you don’t plan on using them quickly.
And, Jackson notes, while you might focus on spices, don’t forget how valuable herbs and citrus pulp can be, both as a base and as an enhancement. He recommends rosemary, thyme, fennel, mint, and coriander to add dimension to your at-home bitters experiment.
Master your technique
Making bitter really isn’t all that difficult – it just takes patience (and maybe some thyme!). Just stock up on some glasses, cheesecloth, neutral spirits, and bitters. After that it’s child’s play.
“The good news is that it doesn’t require much attention once assembled; just an occasional shake every now and then,” says Jackson. “After adding all your ingredients to the jar with the alcohol, set it on a shelf and let the alcohol do its job of stripping the flavor of the ingredients – no refrigeration required.”
Bailey says tasting along the way is also key to great results—the bitters are ready when your taste buds say so. And if you forget your brew and let the brew take too long, it can often be salvaged or even turned into a syrup.
“If you end up with something too bitter, you can go in and add some simple syrup to sweeten it,” he says. “You might end up with no bitters, but you would still have something that could be fun and delicious and flavorful.”
If you want to make bitters in a pinch, Johnny Swet, mixologist and cocktail consultant at NYC’s The Skylark, explains there’s a quicker way to get the job done.
“If you don’t have a month, you can use a liquor with your hard liquor and other ingredients to speed up the process,” he says. “Take walnut bitters, for example: you buy walnuts, crack them open, and then use some walnut liqueur (about 2 ounces) to boost the flavors. Then, after two weeks, you can strain it all and use it.” He also uses this technique for an orange bitter, adding dried orange peel and some Grand Marnier to make a usable bitter in days instead of months.
Make your own bitters
First time making your own bitter? While you can let your imagination run wild when it comes to your ingredients, these step-by-step instructions make the process easier.
Guy Jackson’s Bitters template
- 2 tablespoons herbs, spices or other flavoring
- 2 ounces hard alcohol
- Optional: Demerara or Turbinado syrup (to taste)
- Pour flavorings into a glass and top up with high-proof alcohol. Leave at room temperature for at least two weeks. Shake daily to ensure the infusion is even and complete.
- After two weeks, strain the spirit into a new glass using cheesecloth and then seal.
- Cover the strained solids with water in a saucepan and heat on a stove.
- Bring the mixture to a simmer, then remove from the heat and pour into a jar and let sit for another week.
- Strain the solids and mix the infused alcohol with the water infusion. (You can pass it through double cheesecloth to remove most of the cloudiness.)
- Optional: To remove some of the bitterness, add a sweetener like demerara or turbinado syrup, depending on your taste.
- Bottle your bitter and store indefinitely at room temperature.
Johnny Swet’s Quick Walnut Bitters
In case of emergancy? Johnny Swet has a method that works a little faster. Check out this recipe for quick homemade walnut bitters.
- 2 ounces of vodka
- 2 ounces walnut liqueur
- ½ ounce bourbon
- 6-10 cracked walnuts
- Knead all ingredients together.
- Strain finely into a storage glass.
- Refrigerate for several days or until desired flavor is achieved.