How to Make and Use Your Own Bitters
Amp up your at-home cocktails with these do-it-yourself bitters.
Bitters are all the rage in the cocktail scene, starring in old-school beverages like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned. We've put together a little primer all about bitters and how they can help you seriously up your cocktail game—particularly if you're ready to take on making them at home.
What are Bitters?
Bitters are ultra concentrated liquid extracts. They're similar to the vanilla extract you use in baking, except they use other kinds of seeds, herbs, flowers, or roots to achieve their herbal (and, yes, bitter) flavor. These pre-Prohibition-style tinctures are mainly used in cocktails, where just a dash can add a sophisticated, nuanced flavor to an otherwise unexciting drink.
The most common bitter is Angostura ($7, walmart.com), name-brand aromatic bitters made up of a laundry list of ingredients that, confusingly, doesn't actually include Angostura bark, but does include a bitter root called gentian.
How to Make Your Own Bitters
True booze hounds—or anyone looking to really impress their dinner party guests—should absolutely try making bitters at home, since this method can be adapted to limitless flavor combos that simply can't be found in stores. These also make excellent Christmas or hostess gifts for the holidays.
You'll need three ingredients to make bitters: bittering agents, aromatics, and alcohol.
Aromatics can include everything from citrus peels and dried fruit, to herbs such as mint, rosemary, and sage, to all kinds of spices. You can even use coffee beans and toasted nuts.
The alcohol should be heavy duty: think 100 proof (or 50 percent alcohol-by-volume, or ABV), at least. Vodka and grain alcohol (such as Everclear) have the cleanest flavor, though bourbon, rye, or rum can make for interesting spinoffs. No need to buy anything fancy—a brand like Smirnoff will do just fine.
There are several methods for making bitters. You can combine all the ingredients at once; I prefer infusing the botanicals individually and then blending the tinctures together at the end to suit your taste.
Step 1: In small jars, put one spice/herb/fruit/etc. at the bottom—one to two teaspoons, coarsely chopped—and cover with about 4 oz. of alcohol. Cover the jar tightly, and don't forget to label what's inside!
Step 2: Shake the jar once a day to swirl the ingredients. Taste and/or smell the infusion daily—some ingredients will be infused within that first week, others may take several weeks. To taste the tincture as it ages, add a few drops to some sparkling water. If you taste it directly, the flavor will be very intense, and it's hard to judge if it tastes good or not.
Step 3: When the mixture is ready, strain through a cheesecloth. Then use a medicine-type dropper (or buy those trendy little apothecary bottles with droppers) to combine flavors. Keep your bitters in a cool, dry place, and the mixtures should last indefinitely.
How to Use Your Bitters
Traditionally bitters are mixed into cocktails to add extra depth, but you don't have to stop your bitters use there. They can also be dropped into batches of homemade ice cream, blended into a latte, or swapped in for extracts in baking. Once you've made a few favorites, you'll want to add bitters to everything.