Make Your Own Bitters
An Awesome How to Challenge
Today you are going to make your own bitters. That’s right, in this section of the Cocktail Bitters Guide we are going to dive into creating your own unique bitters blend.
Making your own bitters is a challenge. It involves balancing a huge range of complex and often obscure ingredients.
If you get it right you can do amazing things. You can create the perfect blend of flavors for your signature cocktail. You can use local botanicals to create cocktails that reflect your regional flavors. The best thing is you are creating your own ingredients. You will control the flavor profile of your cocktail in a way that nobody can duplicate.
Making your own bitters is a challenge.
There are a lot of existing brands that make an amazing array of flavors. If you can’t find a flavor that works for you, check out our Guide to Where to Buy Bitters. Even if you’re ordering them online from the other side of the world they’ll arrive faster than you can make your own. Cheaper too.
Bitters also use a bunch of obscure ingredients. This means you’re going to spend some time finding those. If you want to do this, you will have to hunt some things down. If you’re not ready to figure out where to find wormwood or cinchona bark this isn’t for you.
Besides, that bottle of Angostura works pretty well. You can pick it up at the grocery store for about $10. It lasts forever. It works pretty well in most situations. So Why bother making your own?
Breaking Ground – Changing the World
You still here? Good. Obviously, you are one of the brave, few people who are breaking ground. Moving forward. Writing the history of the cocktail for future generations of drinkers.
Never let anyone tell you the world doesn’t need your Grapefruit, Cactus and Burdock Bitter. It does. They don’t understand. They never will. If you make those Grapefruit & Cactus bitters send me a bottle. They sound delicious.
Overview of the Process
You make bitters by extracting flavors from roots, barks, and botanicals. It’s like steeping tea. In other words, you put your ingredients in a container, cover them with high proof alcohol and let them sit for a while. You will often see that process called maceration. Generally speaking, you let them rest anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months.
Then you strain out the solids and filter the fine particles out. Stick them in a dropper bottle. Finally, the only thing left to do is to blow your friend’s mind with your awesomeness
Let’s Get Started
The actual work involved is pretty easy. The hard part is tracking down the ingredients. If you’re developing your own recipe it can be tricky to get the balance right. Especially if you’re making a whole batch and waiting to try it. So, in this guide, we’ll show you a couple of tricks to make that go a little faster.
Bittering agents are the roots, barks, and botanicals that give your bitters flavor. Many of the of these flavors are fixatives. In other words, they may not provide a lot of flavor on their own but they marry or ‘fix’ flavors to each other. These are the base flavor notes you will build your bitters on.
Most of these botanicals will give bitters woody, spicy notes. Some will push things in more the direction of warm baking spices. Others like wormwood and licorice root will lend themselves to anise flavors. Some, like angelica and orris, lend themselves to more floral notes.
Flavoring agents provide the middle and top notes or the flavor direction of the bitters. The flavors you choose here will make up the flavor profile of the bitters. Your flavor profile can be as can be as simple as a single ingredient or a complex as you’d like to make it.
When you have chosen your blend of botanicals you are ready to start macerating them in alcohol. There are a few considerations to make when you choosing your spirit base. You need to consider the type of spirit you want to use, its proof, and its flavor. We will look at each of those factors in this section.
The first thing to think about is the type of spirit that want to use. Most people recommend a high-proof neutral spirit. That is fine, but you can use other spirits such as whiskey, brandy or gin. You have to think about how the flavor of the underlying spirit is going to affect the flavor of the bitters.
The next thing to consider is the proof of the spirit you will be using. Bitters are around 40% alcohol by volume, but they are often made at much higher proofs. This because higher proof alcohol works much better for dissolving flavor compounds. This is the reason many recipes call for over-proof spirits. Everclear or Bacardi 151 are the most common of these.
Depending on where you are, you may have some trouble locating Everclear or 151. There are plenty of other high proof spirits that work fine. Smirnoff Blue Label is a 100 proof vodka that I often use. Plymouth Navy Strength Gin is a great choice for gin. Wild Turkey 101 works well as a whiskey base. Goslings make a nice overproof rum.
Finally, even if you are using a flavorless, odorless, neutral spirit you want to taste it. Even neutral spirits will have some influence on the flavor of your finished product. It isn’t necessary to use premium spirits to make bitters, but if the spirit doesn’t taste good to you, don’t use it.
Tools for Making Bitters
Knives, Peelers, and Graters
You’re going to need a paring knife and a chef’s knife for chopping herbs and cutting fruit. I tend to start and end there. I prefer to use a knife for zesting and peeling as well. Many people prefer to use zesters and peelers for these tasks.
If you aren’t comfortable using a paring knife to remove the zest from fruit a swivel peeler works well. You can also use a Microplane grater when you want a finely grated zest.
A large cutting board is another essential. You likely have one on hand already.
Mortar and Pestle
I love my mortar and pestle. Mostly because it makes me feel like a wizard or an old-timey apothecary mixing up potions. It is a great tool for grinding spices. It takes a little more energy than an electric spice grinder, but I prefer it.
A good scale is essential to making your own bitters. I use a digital scale that can convert from metric to imperial. They are relatively inexpensive and pretty easy to find.
Unless you are planning to make large volumes, Mason jars are the perfect for making bitters. They are cheap and available. You can find them at the grocery or hardware store. Or, ask around. Chances are you can find some for free from a friend or relative. Sterilization isn’t necessary like it is for canning, so used jars and lids are fine.
Filters, Funnels, and Strainers
At the very least you need a mesh strainer to get the big chunks out. For personal use, that level of filtration can be fine. For a finer level of filtration a good quality cotton cheesecloth works well.
A good funnel is a necessity. Especially if you want to make cleanup easier and keep the people you live with happy.
Commercial bitters manufacturers will filter their products much finer. Often down to the micron level. You don’t want to go to that kind of trouble at home. A lot of people recommend using coffee filters or Brita filters. It’s worth the time or trouble for personal use. If your bitters are cloudy and that drives you nuts, by all means, filter away.
You can find a selection of bitters bottles to buy online. From beautiful crystal bottles to more mundane options there are a lot of choices. Whatever you choose, look for bottles with built in dropper inserts. You’ll sometimes see these called woozy bottles or woozy caps.
I clean out and reuse empty bitters bottles at home. Not everybody goes through enough bitters to make this a viable option.
A piece of tape and a sharpie work fine. When your bitters are infusing you’ll want to label them and date them so you know when they’re ready.
When you bottle them for consumption you can get as fancy as you like. If you are going to give them as gifts or use them behind the bar an attractive label is a nice touch.
A Basic Recipe
The following is a method to get you started creating your own recipe. This is by no means a standard formula. Don’t worry about adhering to it. Think of it as a starting place.
Creating a Flavor Library
You are going to start working on your bitters recipe by creating several tinctures. A tincture is a simple infusion made with a single botanical. If you make several tinctures you can build a flavor library. This will come in handy to develop and test recipes faster. This technique will also help you make it more consistent when you reproduce it.
To start your flavor library choose a few bittering agents and several botanicals. Two to four bittering agents will give you enough choices to build a flavor base for your bitters. Five to ten flavoring agents will let you create a huge variety of flavors.
We are going to start by making about four ounces of each tincture. That is enough to fill a small mason jar. It gives you enough to work with to develop several bitters.
I like to use weight to volume measurements when I am making infusions. In other words, I weigh solids, but I measure liquids by volume.
The reason for this is because it is both simple and accurate. In many recipes, the solids are in tablespoons and teaspoons. This can lead to a lot of variation from batch to batch. With dry ingredients, the volume can change depending on how well packed they are. Using the weight is much more consistent.
Weight to Volume
We write weight to volume as a ratio like 1:2. That means for every part liquid we use one part solid to two parts liquid. In metric that means we use 1 gram solids to 2 ml liquid. If you’re more comfortable with ounces the ratio is still the same.
The measure you use isn’t important, but the ratio is. What that means is that you need to stay consistent. If you use metric on one side of the equation, you need to use it one the other side as well.
For fresh herbs and botanicals use a 1:2 ratio. In other words, use 1 part fresh herbs for 2 parts spirits. For our flavor library, we are looking to end up with 4 ounces of liquid. That works out to 2 ounces by weight of fresh botanicals to 4 ounces by volume of spirit. In metric that would be about 60 grams of fresh botanicals to 120 ml of spirits.
For dried roots, barks, seeds, and herbs use a ratio of 1 part botanical to 5 parts spirit. This is where things get a little easier with metric. You will use 24 grams of dried botanical to 120 ml of spirits. In ounces, that’s 4/5 or 0.8 ounces by volume to 4 ounces of spirit. It is much simpler to weigh out grams in small measures than it is to weigh out fractions of an ounce.
- Prep your botanicals. Start by measuring out your dry ingredients. Depending on the form you purchased them in you may want to break them down. The goal is to expose more surface area to the liquid. This helps speed up the infusion. You can grind down the spices if you like, but that means you will have to filter your tincture more.
- Cover your botanicals with your chosen spirit. Close the jar and give it a good shake.
- Let it rest. Some people recommend agitating your infusion on a daily basis. I don think it’s a necessary step. Commercial bitters manufacturers don’t agitate. You don’t need to either. Unless you’re impatient. Shaking may speed up your infusion, but it’s hard to say by how much.
- Taste test. Every few days give your tincture a good smell and a small taste. Put a drop on the back of your hand a get a good sense of the scent. Taste it. Does the aroma smell like the botanical or the spirit it is soaking in? If you don’t get the full flavor of the botanical leave it a while longer.
- Fresh botanicals might be ready in a few days. Hard barks, roots, and seeds may not develop their full flavor for a couple of months. When you feel like they have reached their full flavor strain out the solids.
Creating Your Bitters Blend
Now that you have built your flavor library you can start making magic. The next step is to start blending you botanical tinctures. This is a simple process, but there are a few tips and tricks to make it easier.
The first thing we are going to do is to create several 10 ml samples. This will allow us to try out a lot of variations very quickly. You will start by creating a hypothetical recipe. Then you will measure this out into tasting glasses. Finally, you adjust and repeat the process until you get the perfect blend.
First of all, if you can, get your hands on a decent 10 ml pipette. If you can’t, a syringe or an eyedropper that measures in 1 ml increments will work fine.
You will also want several glasses to build and taste your samples. You will do side by side tastings as you go, so having a few glasses available is handy.
Finally, you will want to have a notepad and pen. You are going to record the ratios and make tasting notes as you go.
Think about your flavor inspiration. Chances are, you already have an idea about what you want to achieve. You might be trying to create aromatic bitters for your signature Manhattan. You might want something more exotic, like recreating the flavors of regional cuisine. Whatever your goal is, write it down so you can compare your samples to your ideal flavor profile.
Write up a theoretical recipe. The next step is to decide what flavors you are going to put in your first sample. Start with your bittering agents. Choose one to four for your flavor base. Next, think about your flavors. Choose four to six or so to make up your middle and top notes.
Figure out your ratios. You are going to make 10 ml samples. You will measure out your ingredients in milliliters. The measurements of all your ingredients should add up to 10. Start with your bittering agents. Aim for somewhere between 10 – 50% of your blend. The rest of your blend is going to be a mix of your flavor botanicals.
Example Aromatic Bitters blend:
- 3 ml orange peel
- 2 ml sour cherry
- 2 ml cardamom
- 1 ml star anise
- 2 ml cassia bark
- 1 ml gentian root
*Note: This is not a blend I’ve made or tasted. It represents a starting place.
Make your first test blend. This part is simple. Measure out your tinctures and put them in your glass. This is where a pipette or eyedropper comes in handy. Mix it up a bit and taste it.
Make sure you write down what you put in the blend and keep it with the tasting glass.
Tasting your blend.
Smell the bitters in the glass. Put a drop in the palm of your hand. Rub your hands together and get a good sense of the aroma. Taste a drop of it on its own. Taste a drop of your mixture in a glass of soda water.
Pay attention to the flavors. Do they match up to your original vision? Does any one flavor stand out too much? Is there anything missing? Does it taste balanced?
Adjust your blend. From here on out, rinse and repeat. Add more of what was missing from the first attempt. Reduce flavors that are too intense. Keep taking notes and keep them with your tasting glasses so you can do side-by-side tastings.
Working Out a Recipe
Once you have your blend figured out you can start to write a recipe. To do this you will start with your blend a work backward.
- The first step is to decide how much you want to make. To simplify we are going to make 1 liter of our imaginary blend. So if your blend call for 4 parts orange peel that means you need 400 ml of orange peel tincture.
- Now, there are two ways to calculate dry ingredients. The first method is simple. If you started with a 100 ml tincture you can multiply the dry ingredients you used by four. Like I said, simple.
- The other method is to go back to the ratio you used to make your tincture. Let’s assume you used dried orange peel to make the tincture. We’ll further assume that you used our suggested ratio of 1:5 for dried ingredients. 400 ml divided by 5 is 80.
- Remember this is weight to volume so that means we need 80 grams of dried orange peel.
Now all you have to do is repeat that process for the rest of your ingredients. Write it out and you have a pretty straightforward weight to volume recipe.
Converting Your Recipe to Volume Based Measurements
Weighing dry ingredients makes a lot of sense for many reasons. You get better consistency across batches. You don’t have to worry as much if someone is using whole or ground ingredients. If you use metric measurements it makes recipes much easier to scale. You don’t have to worry about well packed that cup measure is, and so on.
The problem is if you are writing for hobbyists or at home cooks they may not have a scale. They may not be as familiar with weighing ingredients. Weight to volume recipes are also unfamiliar for many cooks and can be intimidating. It’s pretty simple to convert your recipe to common teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups.
All you have to do is to weigh out your ingredients and measure to see how they convert. Write down your new measurements and you’re good to go.