Hey, guess what — this is my 100th post! Shall we celebrate with free things? Yeah!
Bitters and cocktails are a relatively new interest of mine. While my parents didn’t care much for alcohol outside of social events, a few random bottles of beer could always be found in the basement fridge, along with the occasional half-empty, forgotten bottle of wine. Liquor, however, rarely (if ever) made an appearance. Long, twisty spoons, shiny shakers and their accompanying gadgets, pretty glasses of various shapes and sizes — all of these things were unknown to me.
Without a scotch-sipping grandfather or a cabinet filled with old, mysterious bottles to instill charm and intrigue during my childhood, my first impression of liquor/mixed drinks came from college. (College students in Albany, NY do not drink “cocktails,” they mix swill with more swill, and then they guzzle it. Lots of it.) In case you can’t already tell, my first impression was not a good one. Liquor was bleached-blonde, spray-tanned girls sucking down appletinis or cosmos in between attempts to out-screech each other. It was guys sporting double polos with popped collars, a pound of hair gel, and a suffocating amount of Acqua Di Gio elbowing me out of the way at the bar to order a round of panty droppers for the appletini girls and Captain ’n’ Cokes for the bros. It was drinking to get wasted. It was drinking to get so wasted that you just puke directly onto the floor of a bar, then nonchalantly stumble away while a girl screams about the vomit on her feet. (Yeah, I saw that happen. I bet that girl never wore open-toed shoes to a bar again.)
And so, I developed a love of beer and wine, but bypassed liquor and cocktails almost entirely. Then last year, I began looking into books on homemade soda. And thanks to Amazon’s suggestion vortex, Andrew Schloss’s Homemade Soda led me to Darcy S. O’Neil’s Fix the Pumps, which led me to Brad Thomas Parsons’s Bitters (as well as Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails and David Wondrich’s Imbibe!). And because each of them sounded so intriguing, I bought them all. BTP’s Bitters, however, quickly became my favorite. I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with apothecaries, old-timey medicine, and anything that gives me an excuse to buy and use many jars and bottles, so I guess it was a natural attraction. Within a month, I had the jars, the high-proof alcohol, and more herbs than I will ever use in my lifetime, and I was ready to get down to business.
UPDATE: After this post went live last night, I received several comments from people who weren’t quite sure what bitters were, and I realized I probably should have explained a bit more about them! Bitters are made by infusing herbs, spices, fruit peels, barks (and a number of other things) in high-proof alcohol over the course of several weeks. (Glycerin is sometimes used in place of alcohol, although I’ve read that the extraction is not as good.) When the steeping process is complete, you filter out the solids and add a little bit of sweetener. The result is an aromatic liquid that is most commonly added to cocktails, but has a variety of other uses as well. Bitters were originally marketed as a cure-all of sorts, for anything from headaches to indigestion, but soon found their place in alcoholic beverages. Just a few dashes can make all the difference in a cocktail. To quote Parsons: “Bitters are essentially a liquid seasoning agent for drinks and even food, and their frequent description as a bartender’s salt and pepper hits close to the mark.” Their presence is somewhat subtle, but leave them out and you’ll definitely notice that your drink seems a bit sweet, a little disjointed, or is just lacking that extra something.
The first round I made consisted of six varieties of bitters: apple, lemon, grapefruit, pear, root beer, and coffee pecan. Then as soon as spring hit and rhubarb started showing up on the shelves, I whipped up a batch of rhubarb bitters, and decided to throw together an orange one as well. Out of all eight varieties, the grapefruit, pear, and root beer are the stars in my opinion. (The pear took a little while to grow on me, but then summer hit and I discovered that it absolutely rocks in tequila.) The grapefruit is excellent in most drinks that usually include a little bit of lemon or lime juice/twists, as it adds some unexpected citrus notes that can only come from grapefruit. (I love adding a few drops to my gin & tonics.) And as far as the root beer batch goes, I can’t get past drinking it in soda water. In fact, I’d say that the vast majority of my bitters wind up in plain ol’ seltzer. If you’ve never tried this before, I highly recommend it. I drink it simply because I love the taste, but a glass of bitters & soda can do wonders for an upset tummy or after a particularly large meal.
Alright, enough of my blabbing, let’s talk about the giveaway! I have two sets of bitters up for grabs. Each set consists of eight 1-oz. bottles of pear, grapefruit, lemon, orange, rhubarb, root beer, apple, and coffee pecan bitters. Just leave a comment below telling me your favorite variety of bitters and your favorite way to use it (in a drink or otherwise). Or if you’re new to bitters, just tell me your favorite drink (as long as it isn’t the panty dropper). I’ll start things off with two of my favorites (the first of which is actually just something that I’m just super excited about and haven’t gotten around to trying yet):
- My 50-year-old bottle of Angostura bitters that I found at a flea market. As soon as I pick up a bottle of Pisco, it’s Pisco Sour with old Angostura time!
- The Bitter Truth’s Original Celery Bitters. Excellent in grapefruit juice. Astoundingly good in soup.
The giveaway will end this Sunday (the 29th) at midnight. Sadly, I do ask that only U.S. residents participate in the giveaway, as I’m not sure how well these little guys would fare in Customs. I will announce the winners Monday morning on Facebook, as well as in a follow-up post Monday or Tuesday evening. Good luck, everyone!
And for those of you that would like to try making your own bitters, here are a few tips from me:
If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Bitters. It is a wealth of information, ranging from history to recipes to cocktails to culinary uses.
Look into what sort of reasonably priced, high-proof spirits are available for purchase in your area. For U.S. residents, visit the Department of Liquor Control website for your state, or inquire at your local beverage center. You want to use alcohol that is at least 80-proof, but ideally 100-proof or higher. (The higher the alcohol content, the better the extraction.) For vodka-based bitters, a grain alcohol like Everclear is the way to go. It is 190-proof and dirt cheap, but its sale is also restricted in a number of states (Vermont being one of them). I was able to get a few bottles shipped to me through Budget Bottle. They will ID you on delivery, so it’s ideal to be home when the package is scheduled to be delivered (otherwise be prepared to pick it up later).
If you don’t have an herbalist in your area, you can order herbs online. I bought most of what I couldn’t find locally from the Dandelion Botanical Company (as I found their site had most of what I needed and was relatively user-friendly), but Tenzing Momo is another good vendor. If you aren’t familiar with buying herbs by weight, keep in mind that 1 or 2 oz. of something might not sound like a lot, but it will wind up being far more than you need.
If you need to purchase jars for steeping bitters or storing herbs, or bottles to bottle up the finished product, I highly recommend Specialty Bottle. I used their 32 oz. mason jars for steeping, their 4 oz. amber jars for storing herbs, and their 2 oz. amber dropper bottles for the finished product (and the 1 oz. version for the giveaway bottles). You do not want to go larger than 2 oz. for the dropper bottles. I originally ordered the 4 oz. bottles, but the droppers felt very flimsy. Considering how slowly most people use bitters, 2 oz. is more than adequate. I am also curious about the European dropper bottles, as I think their droppers might be similar to the dashers you would find on most store-bought varieties of bitters. (I just didn’t want to buy a bunch and find out I was wrong! If anyone has any insight on this, I would love to hear it.)
As far as labels go, I went pretty DIY with those since I am relatively savvy with design programs. I made mine in InDesign, printed them off from my home printer on basic label paper I bought from Staples, and then covered them with clear packing tape to keep the ink from running if it happened to get wet. (Like I said, pretty DIY.) If you don’t want to deal with all that, I hear good things about MOO, although I have not used them myself.
Filtering is key, and also kind of a pain in the @$$. Parsons’s recipes call for straining the solids out of the alcohol after 2 weeks, then covering them in a pan with water, letting them simmer, then placing those in a separate jar and allowing them to steep for another week. The solids + water + heat yields a pretty cloudy mixture, and filtration can be a bit tedious. For the first round of bitters, I spent ALL day filtering those things. I ran them through butter muslin (very fine cheesecloth), then I ran them through paper coffee filters over and over until I was satisfied with the clarity. (They usually backed up in the paper filters, so I wound up carefully stirring them for a bit, then gently squeezing them to coax the liquid through. If I didn’t do so with the utmost care, the filter would pop and I’d have to grab a new one and start over.) Once I was happy with the clarity, I combined the alcohol and the water-based mixture back together, then added the sweetener and let them sit for a couple more days as directed. Parsons’s notes that you should skim off anything that congeals and rises to the top after the sweetened mixture has sat for a few days, but nothing congealed in my first batches. In the second round when I made the rhubarb and orange, however, I was much lazier about filtering before adding the sweetener. As a result, I wound up with a lot of weird gunk that needed to be removed (especially in the rhubarb batch). And so, my suggestion to you is to filter, filter, filter before adding the sweetener. I would recommend buying a flat-bottomed gold filter like this one. (Make sure it also has the filter mesh on the bottom — some do not.) Get the solids out by running them through a cheesecloth-lined sieve first, and then run the remaining liquid through your gold filter a few times. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can also run it through a paper filter for good measure. Alternatively, Science Fare‘s Kevin Liu has a great poston Alcademics that discusses using an Aeropress for filtration. (I would love to buy an Aeropress and give this method a try, as it seems more effective and less tedious than coaxing liquid through a gold filter.) Either way, the more you can clarify the liquid, the better.
If you ever decide to experiment with concocting your own bitters recipes, do your research and/or consult an herbalist. (This is very important for spirits that will be consumed in greater quantities, like DIY vermouths/apéritifs/digestifs or other liquor infusions, but it’s wise to exercise caution with bitters as well, even if you’re only adding a few dashes to things here and there.) The extracts of a number of barks and herbs can have adverse health effects when consumed in large doses. Granted, it will usually take quite a lot for some of these effects to manifest, but it’s still important to know what you’re working with, regardless of the quantity you plan to consume. I realized this shortly after I completed the first round of bitters and brought them to a friend’s cocktail party, where a number of herbalists also happened to be in attendance. When they excitedly asked me what I’d used to make the bitters, it caught me rather off guard. I stared at them blankly for a few seconds, trying to remember what — besides the obvious — had gone into each batch, and then stumbled over the names of handful of herbs and barks that I was actually able to recall. They then went on to recount various bitters and tinctures they had created for specific reasons, and why they’d used particular ingredients for each, as I listened and though to myself, “oh yeah, these ingredients actually do things . . . duh.” So, in short, just keep in mind that there’s a reason these things started out as medicinal extracts, and that people still go to school to learn about them today.
I hope some of you will find this useful! (I think this is the longest post I have ever written, by far.) If anyone has any tips of their own, please share. I would love to hear them.