Fueled largely by the hard liquor and artisanal cocktail booms, bitters — those astringent, potent flavour enhancers added by the drop to cocktails — have become a big business. Ten years ago you'd have been challenged to find much beyond those ubiquitous Angostura and Peychaud's bitters. Today, bitters are made with everything from celery and rhubarb to Mexican chocolate and Colonial-era spice blends.
Yet even with this delicious abundance, it's OK to want more. The good news is that custom bitters are easy to crank out in your own kitchen.
But first, a bitter primer. Bitters often are described as the salt of the cocktail world. A drop added to a drink — and sometimes food — doesn't just add flavour, it heightens, highlights and ties together all the other ingredients, as well. Most bitters are made by distilling herbs, seeds, roots and other ingredients. The result is a thin liquid with a — Surprise! — bitter or bittersweet taste and a robust aroma.
Many bitters — including Angostura — originated a medicines. We've mostly abandoned that idea, but that doesn't mean there isn't some therapeutic value in a good cocktail...
While the Internet abounds with recipes and methods for making your own bitters, I've found most of them unnecessarily fussy and tedious. So I started experimenting with basic techniques and recipes and soon discovered how simple it really is to make your own. I've since perfected two techniques, one that works in about 30 minutes, another that takes a few days. It really just depends on how much time you've got.
As the name suggests, at least one of your ingredients should have a bitter (or astringent) flavour. Citrus peel is ideal for this. I generally use just the thin zest layer of the peel from oranges or limes, though I once used whole kumquats. You also could use rhubarb, cranberries, fresh basil or mint. Whole produce, such as kumquats, should be scored with a knife.
Next, pick something sweet. Usually, some sort of fruit is helpful here, such as lemon or lime slices, cherries, apples, berries or mango. Anything large (such as an apple) should be chopped.
Now, grab something spicy. Cinnamon, star anise, black peppercorns, cumin and nutmeg are all delicious. If you like a little heat, consider adding a hot pepper.
The important thing is that you select flavours and ingredients that you like and that you think will work together. It also helps if you have a cocktail or spirit in mind when making your bitters. I'm a fan of the classic old fashioned made with bourbon. I don't add much sugar to my drink, but I do like sweetly-fruity bitters, so I often go with flavours such as cranberry-orange-cinnamon. Sometimes I add a vanilla bean.
Finally, you need vodka. You will be using all of these ingredients to infuse the vodka, which ultimately will become the bitters. Don't go top shelf for the vodka; just grab a jug of the cheap stuff.
Place your infusion ingredients — the bitter, sweet and spicy ingredients you've chosen — in a glass quart jar with a tight-fitting lid. How much? Depends. For citrus, use the full zest of 3 to 4 pieces of fruit. For cranberries, rhubarb or herbs, use about 2 cups. The good news is that it's really hard to use too much, so when in doubt, add more. Remember, the finished product will only be used a few drops at a time.
Once your ingredients are in the jar, lightly mash them with a wooden spoon, then add enough vodka to fill it. Screw on the lid, shake, then walk away. Whenever you think of it during the next three or four days, give it a shake. After the infusion has sat for that time, strain it, squeezing the solids to get as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids.
Place the infused vodka in a small saucepan and simmer until reduced by half. Let it cool, then bottle it and refrigerate. Done. Use a few drops in your next cocktail. The bitters will keep in the refrigerator for a month.
Ready for fun with science? This is where we get to use the boiling point of alcohol — a low 176 F — to our advantage.
First, heat a large pot of water to 176 F. Use a candy thermometer hooked to the side of the pot to monitor this. Now dump all of the ingredients outlined in the slow method above into a heat-safe plastic bag (the bags used by vacuum sealers are a good choice), pressing out as much air as possible.
Submerge the bag in the warm water. In a few minutes (depending on the temperature of your ingredients), you'll see the vodka in the bag bubbling gently. Let it do that for about 10 minutes. Remove the bag from the water and let it cool for another 15 or so minutes. Strain and reduce as described in the slow method. Done. Almost instant cocktail bitters. The bitters will keep in the refrigerator for a month.
J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch . Email him at email@example.com