Give your home bar a backbone with homemade bitters
With the resurgence of cocktail culture, nearly every bar with an inventive mixologist—from the East Village’s PDT to San Francisco’s Cantina—makes its own bitters. A house mix gives any drink a personalized twist.
Bitters are potions that, with just a few drops, add backbone to a cocktail: The Sazerac wouldn’t be what it is without them. The best-known commercial bitters are practically household names: Peychaud’s, angostura, Regans’. Most were created during the golden age of the cocktail, at the turn of the 20th century, so it was high time for CHOW to try our hand at some. (We’ve also thrown in a couple of wild-card mixes for good measure.) But because the makers of the commercial varieties have kept their recipes under lock and key for over a century, and because they use such varied, hard-to-find ingredients—uncommon barks and dried berries among them—we can’t claim to have re-created them faithfully. Instead, consider these our own riffs. And rest assured they’ve been road-tested in a cocktail or two.
Use anywhere you’d add angostura bitters—such as in a Manhattan—but know that this version has a more subtle effect on the drink than its inspiration.
Notes from the Test Kitchen
It’s hard to believe that a simple recipe for herbs and alcohol would leave much room for ambiguity, but developing these formulas proved that many factors contribute to top-notch bitters. There are as many methods as there are mixologists, but the most important thing is how the bitters perform in a cocktail. Here are the main lessons we learned.
Once you’ve settled on which brand of bitters you’re going to try to emulate, the next consideration is which liquor to steep the flavors in. The best choices are spirits with a high alcohol content, but you’ll also need to choose between unflavored varieties, such as grain alcohol or vodka, and more flavorful ones, such as rye. Keep in mind that higher-proof alcohols extract flavor more quickly but can leave a harsh aftertaste.
Be it bark, berry, or herb, something must be added to that alcohol to give it complexity and distinctiveness. Most commercial bitters use relatively unknown ingredients such as gentian, but our recipes use items that can be found at high-end groceries or health food stores. Here’s where you get to personalize your bitters and experiment.
Aging and Agitating
These are key steps in flavor development. Aging (or steeping) helps extract flavor. Too little time and your bitters will be flat; too much and they’ll be unbalanced. Agitating (giving the mixture a shake every now and then) ensures that those flavors are dispersed throughout the mix, with no unexpected taste spikes.
The hue of these complex bitters is what gives them their name. The recipe came to us via San Francisco restaurant Nopa, where it’s used in the Girasol cocktail.