The following 101, on how to make bitters—with a recipe for pine bitters—comes from HOMEGROWN’s flock tender, Jennifer, whose spirit of choice is gin. The name might have something to do with it.
I know a fair amount about beer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for me, it also means I know next to nothing about wine or cocktails. Since one of my New Year’s resolutions was to address this grievous issue, I figured what better way to learn more about spirits than to make my own? (OK, yes. There are better ways, including reading volumes of material from legions of experts. I’m doing some of that, too, but I am a hands-on learner. Not to mention a taste-buds learner.)
I quickly stumbled upon the idea of making my own bitters—that broad category of cocktail flavorings that has sprung up like a weed on drink menus of late. Bitters are basically plant parts steeped in high-proof liquors. They’re not unlike medicinal tinctures or extracts used in baking, other than that they’re intended to be used either as an ingredient in mixed drinks or drunken straight, as a potent digestif. “Digestif” is French for “excuse to toss back an extremely boozy after-dinner shot and call it a digestive aid.”
To get a sense of which flavors I liked and which I didn’t, I paid a visit to my neighborhood craft-cocktail supply shop. I’m extremely lucky to live within walking distance of the Boston Shaker, one of only a few businesses of its kind. There, the shopkeeper poured me tiny samples of all manner of bitters: tangerine, grapefruit, cardamom, habanero, rhubarb, and so on. He told me to think of bitters as the seasoning in my drink: the salt and pepper of cocktails. I liked that.
I went home with orange, black walnut, and traditional Angostura—and the hankering to make my own. More on that shortly. First, the basics.
WHAT GOES INTO BITTERS
1. Bittering agents. These are what give bitters their sharpness. If bitters were sweet, they wouldn’t really be bitters. That’s what simple syrups are for. Bittering agents are typically, although not exclusively, dried or woody plant parts. Examples include wormwood, quassia and cinchona bark, and licorice and dandelion root. A lot of this stuff you have to get from an apothecary, such as Mountain Rose Herbs. Fortunately, citrus peel also works. In theory, you can use fresh herbs as your bittering agent; think arugula or cilantro. But these items’ tendency to get slimy makes them better left to experienced mixologists. I read a post in which one novice bittermaker who had used fresh herbs in his concoction compared the result to wet socks.
2. Flavoring agents. This is how you end up with bitters in flavors like rhubarb. Whereas the bittering agents bitter; the flavoring agents flavor. And when it comes to flavors, the world is your oyster. You could opt for earthy (toasted nuts, coffee beans, cocoa nibs), herbaceous (rosemary, dill, thyme—all kinds of good stuff you can find at the farmers market), floral (chamomile, hibiscus), fruity (dried cranberries, figs), or fragrant (cinnamon, star anise, vanilla beans).
3. A high-proof neutral spirit. You need big, powerful booze to do your flavor-extracting and your preserving, so you want to choose a liquor that's at least 100 proof. You also want the spirit to be neutral in flavor so that it doesn’t cover up the taste of your chosen ingredients. (If you think about it, gin is basically vodka bittered by juniper.) Your best choices here are Everclear or vodka.
1. One thing at a time. The experts will tell you to make lots of different bitters and then mix them together, once the individual parts are done. For example, you would combine a few dashes each of homemade rose petal bitters, sandalwood bitters, lavender bitters, and orange bitters to approximate a popular 18th-century bitters recipe. The professionals like this method for its precision, as different ingredients—for example, the rose petals and the orange peel—infuse at different rates.
2. All in. I’m no expert, but I didn’t really want to spend the vodka money or the time on lots of different bitters that might not turn out. So, for my maiden voyage, I went whole hog. I combined all of my ingredients in one jar, shook it often, tasted daily to try to catch my infusion at its flavor peak, and hoped for the best. Fortunately, my best turned out pretty dang well.
HOW TO MAKE BITTERS: THE BASICS
Because every bittering ingredient has its own optimal infusing time, every recipe is different. That said, there are some general guidelines you can follow. First, chop, crack, split, or mash any dried goodies you're using. Exposing more surfaces lets all of that delicious flavor out! Next, put your bittering and flavoring agents in a jar—ideally, a dark glass jar to keep light out. Cover your ingredients with vodka. The classic tincture formula is 1 part dried botanicals to 5 parts liquor; 1 part fresh botanicals to 2 parts liquor. If you’re making multiple jars of bitters, label each so you know which is which. Also make sure to jot down dates and recipes. Keep the jar out of direct sunlight and shake it vigorously once a day. After a couple of days, give it a taste. I dunked a clean spoon in the jar then licked it. Keep sampling daily; this is scientific research! It's also totally subjective: When you like what you taste, you’re golden. Strain out the solids and bingo: bitters. Stored in a dark bottle out of direct sunlight, your bitters has a virtually unlimited shelf life. Cheers!
RECIPE: PINE BITTERS
As any good forager will tell you, don’t eat anything you can’t absolutely, positively identify. In other words, don’t try this at home. Got it? Good. Moving on.
After having one of the best cocktails of my life—a pine gimlet, made with gin, condensed yogurt whey, and white pine syrup—at Vinland, in Portland, Maine, my general interest in bitters took on a singular obsession. I would make pine bitters. Fortunately, the very next night brought one of our now weekly New England snowstorms, which knocked some pristine pine boughs out of the trees. I picked up a few branches in areas with absolutely no animal tracks near them. Then I washed them like crazy before using them as follows.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
» Peel of 1 clementine, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (This was my bittering agent.)
» 6 whole black peppercorns
» 1 Tbsp white pine needles
» 1 Tbsp Balsam fir needles
» 100 proof vodka
» small jar with a secure lid (I used a yeast jar.)
» another small jar, ideally with a dropper (I used an old elderberry syrup jar.)
» metal strainer
WHAT TO DO
1. Collect your ingredients. Wash the pine needles and the clementine thoroughly and run your jars through the dishwasher to sterilize them. Using scissors, cut any long pine needles into 1-inch pieces.
2. Put the first four ingredients in a dark glass bottle and top with vodka. Screw the lid on tight and give the jar a good shake.
3. Set the jar somewhere out of direct sunlight and give it a vigorous shake once a day. I started tasting my bitters around day 4, and it already had a nice, piney scent. In fact, since I’m not much of a vodka drinker, I had my husband taste it at well. No, he reassured me, plain vodka really doesn’t have a flavor. So yes, he said, what I was tasting were my ingredients at work. By day 7, I picked up even stronger pine notes. By day 15, I decided I had a winner.
4. Using a metal strainer, pour the infused liquid into your fresh and clean jar, catching and discarding any solids. (The second photo below shows my leftovers.)
5. Label and store your bitters out of direct sunlight, and it should keep indefinitely. I’m planning on mixing a dash of my pine bitters with gin, some simple syrup, and an egg white—another one not to try at home. But a gin and pine tonic sounds pretty good, too. Bottoms up!
MORE FROM HOMEGROWN & BEYOND
• Don’t miss Nora’s Tinctures 101
• or Black Cat Cottage’s Extracts 101
• or Cynthia’s Simple Syrups and Flavored Syrups 101
Got your own bitters method or ingredient combination to share? Post it below! You can always find more things to make, craft, cook, bake, plant, grow, and infuse in the HOMEGROWN 101 library!
ALL PHOTOS: JENNIFER