Blog 135

Homemade Bitters

Ben

Ben, is a director of Bar135 in Bristol.

If like us you’ve spent a bit of time experimenting with various bitters available, you’ve probably caught the ‘bitter bug’ and are itching to delve deeper into this wonderful world.  You could of course continue to scour the marketplace for all sorts of weird and wonderful options.  Or, if you have the patience and want to develop a deeper understanding of bitters you could really grab the bull by the horns and develop your own. 

Now before you get carried away, I would always recommend starting with something simple, perhaps an Orange Bitters, so you can develop an understanding of the flavours and their effects, before moving on to something obscure.  It will require a lot of patience, but the end product is worthy of your time and effort.  The reality is, making bitters really isn’t that difficult, but what is tricky is developing an understanding of the bittering agents, which can take time as they are not commonly used ingredients.  The most important thing here, and something that is often overlooked, is that each component that you use has a varying efficacy - that is their flavours diffuse at different speeds.  This is something you need to take into account when producing your own bitters.  To counteract this problem, we’d strongly recommend diffusing each ingredient in its own container, then you can decide for yourself when it is of the correct potency.

On a side note…  We have just fallen into a trap that you will find everywhere if you search around for information on bitters.  A lot of posts and recipes will tell you to steep some ingredient in a liquor until you hit the correct potency or some other vague demand.  Imagine taking a Spanish A Level without ever having been to Spain, taken a Spanish lesson, seen or heard a Spanish word.  I would think you would have similar odds of passing with both of these tasks – assuming you don’t have an aptitude to languages that transcends human intelligence.  No one expects you to be able to tell from the start what the correct potency is so don’t be daunted by this.  I’d be fairly confident that not one person on the planet knows the correct amount of time to steep every ingredient – it is all about trial and error or taking advice from someone trusted who has been there before.  The more you make the more you’ll develop an understanding – this is where your patience will be required and duly rewarded as you will soon become that trusted person.  What is important is that you must always remember that every sample of bitters that you make is a bitters and it has as much right as any shop sold pot to be so.  Rose tinted glasses or not, every bottle of bitters you make will have an ability to sew together a drink better than any bottle you can buy.

Now, back to making them.  Before you start, it’s important to understand the essences of a bitters.  There are three main components, which we have broken down below:

Bittering Agent:

Funnily enough, this is what gives it its name.  Generally speaking you would be looking at using various roots and barks, the most common of which is gentian root

Flavour:

This is where your mind can wonder.  Be as extravagant as you would like, although in our limited experience, the simpler the better!  The flavour comes from various fruits, vegetables, cocoa, or whatever you come across that you feel will work well in a bitters.

spices used to make bitters for adding to cocktails

Picture: A few ingredients you might consider for bitters

The Solution:

This is the alcohol solution.  Always use high proof products for this as these will help to extract the flavours quicker.  Depending on your ideas you can use any spirit really, but commonly one would use vodka, rum, whisk(e)y or cognac.  Be sensible - if you are going for delicate flavours, use a vodka; whereas if you’re looking to produce a heartier/spicier bitters look at the darker spirits.  In the UK it can be fairly difficult to get hold of these high proof spirits but we would recommend you look out for bottles such as Stolichnaya 100 proof vodka and Wild Turkey 101 (50.5 proof) bourbon.

What do you need to get started?

Here is a full apparatus of what you will need to make your own bitters:

  • Knives
  • Chopping board
  • Pestle & Mortar
  • Mason Jars (the number dependant on how many ingredients you will be using)
  • Coffee Filters/Cheesecloth
  • Funnel
  • Bottles
  • Some form of label

Over the next few months we shall be trying various recipes we’ve found and will post some of the better ones we have come across and refined them!  

A quick warning though, before you start thinking about going into manufacturing your creations, it’s worth checking out the various licensing regulations involved with unlicensed alcohol production and how to avoid the various hurdles!

For those of you who do want to learn a little bit more about bitters, I strongly recommend reading Brad Thomas Parsons’ masterpiece; Bitters; A spirited history of a classic cure-all.

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From Aviation highs all the way down to a Dark and Stormy, the Bar 135 blog will guide you through the cocktail world and make sure you end up with the perfect drink in your hand.
Keep coming back for the latest food and drink fashions as well as expert advice on recreating your favourite drinks at home.

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