Play Mad Scientist: Make Your Own Bitters

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To try Derek's technique for making your own bitters at home, click here.

Hunting for bitters used to be a thankless task, and if you wanted something "exotic" like orange bitters you were simply out of luck. However, as I've noted before, things have changed. I'm now delighted to find bitters in my neighborhood liquor store. They carry Angostura, Peychaud's, and Regan's Orange No. 6 Bitters--a fine collection for any household, and ordering online from Kegworks or other reputable sources can easily fill out your collection.

Here's the problem: what if you want a particular flavor or profile and you still can't find it? Well, dig in, and I'll walk you through making your own. My recipe is constantly changing and I'm learning with each batch, so I welcome feedback from those of you who have tried this.

Firstly, I separate my base infusions into two categories: bitter and aromatic. The reason for the split is that they require different steeping times and, when it comes to the final product—depending on the flavoring agent—I want to be able to increase or decrease each respective quality. These are also very basic blends. You can add or subtract components according to your tastes, but I found that 12 to 14 ingredients is sometimes redundant and unnecessary.

To create the bitter base I use the following ingredients (ground or chopped):

    • gentian root
    • quassia bark
    • wormwood
    • dandelion

For the aromatic base, I use the following (also ground or chopped):

    • dried Seville orange peel
    • dried lemon peel
    • coriander powder
    • caraway powder
    • aniseed powder
    • cassia bark (cinnamon)

Next, I allow both to soak in cheap vodka for differing periods of time. Make sure your vodka isn't complete rotgut. In other words, you shouldn't use a vodka brand that you wouldn't drink straight.

For the bitter blend, I soak the ingredients for two days (you can taste the bitterness when its ready). For the aromatic, I soak things for 10 days and then cook the ingredients for a few minutes in water after removing them from the alcohol. I then add them back to the alcohol and let the mixture sit for another five days. This is akin to squeezing out the last drops of flavor.

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Please note that the final infusions contain both aromatic and bitter elements. I just find it useful to separate them for blending purposes. Other bartenders, such as Jamie Boudreau, may separate the blends even further and, in fact, have done some very pioneering work in creating homemade bitters.

With the basic bitter and aromatic infusions in the works, I then create a flavor infusion. Try anything you like: hibiscus, rhubarb, or blueberries, for instance. You can do this by soaking the ingredients in alcohol for an extended period of time or by creating a syrup. For something like blueberries, I don't want them to sit and steep for too long, which would make them become shriveled, pale versions of their fresh selves. So I make syrup from the fresh blueberries with sugar and water and add it to the blended infusions. I might also take some dried blueberries and steep them in the syrup for a touch longer to add depth of flavor. For a heavy aromatic blend, like orange bitters, I use fresh and dried peels from both bitter and sweet oranges and allow them to sit in alcohol for much longer.

The last step is to strain the mixtures and blend them by taste. You can add water and caramel (sugar cooked with a little water in a pan) at this point in the proportions you want. For fig bitters I create a heavier aromatic profile by adding the aromatic infusion to the bitter infusion at a two to one ration and then use dried figs soaked in alcohol for the flavor. Lastly, I add additional water and sugar.

You can order the herbs and spices online at Mountain Rose Herbs. Just remember, whenever I'm asked what the most important ingredient for bitters is I answer, simply: patience. My full recipe is attached. Good luck and please feel free to write your own recipe in the comments!

Recipe: Homemade Bitters

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Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
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