Bitters

Photo by Kondor83 / Shutterstock

No one knows the exact time when bitters started, but it’s agreed that it was first used medicinally. In 1712, Richard Stoughton, a British clergyman, received a patent for Magnum Elixir Stomachicum, which was an alcohol-based herbal infusion. It was the second compound medicine in the world to receive a patent. Soon, the public was calling it Stoughton’s Bitters. In 1730, he exported it to America.

 

Bitters is made of selected herbs, spices, seeds, dried fruit peels, flora, barks, botanicals, or roots of one’s choice—a witch’s brew of sorts—then preserved in a base of high-proof alcohol. However, some bitters are nonalcoholic and made with glycerin. In the 1800s, these elixirs were advertised as cure-alls and sold in 750 ml bottles. Today, due to the cocktail revolution, there is a huge assortment of bitters on the market just like there was back in the 1880s.

 

Bitters can be dashed into fizzy water and drunk to calm a stomachache, and you can use bitters in food and drinks to add flavor. Bitters doesn’t taste bitter as the name implies. When used in cocktails, it simply adds a dash of concentrated flavor. Most say it seasons the cocktail in the same way salt seasons food. The best way to taste test bitters is through your nose. No, do not sniff. Dash a couple drops in your palm, rub your palms together, then cover your nose and mouth and smell.

 

If you’d like to experiment with making your own medicinal bitters, then these herbs and other plants may be worth exploring: amla berry, ashwagandha, astragalus root, bamboo stem, burdock root, Bupleurum, dandelion root, ellagitannin, fo-ti, gotu kola, gubinge, holy basil, Indian gooseberry, Japanese knotweed, jiaogulan, kudzu leaf, licorce root, maca, mallow leaf, moringa leaf, pine bark, pine needles, pine pollen, red clover, rosehip, sea buckthorn, Siberian ginseng, suma, watercress, and yellowdock root.

 

Angostura Bitters

Since 1824, Angostura bitters has stood the test of time. In 1862, Don Carlos Siegert from Trinidad first exhibited it at the Great London Exposition. The cocktail Pink Gin was invented at the same time, and was called Amargo Aromatico. Angostura bitters won a medal at the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna, Austria. Many cocktails call for the bitters, including the Champagne Cocktail, Vieux Carré, Pisco Sour, Old-Fashioned, Pink Gin, Manhattan, Rob Roy, Singapore Sling, Planter’s Punch, and Zombie.

 

Peychaud’s Bitters and Boker’s Bitters

The next two most popular bitters in the 1800s were Peychaud’s Bitters (1857) from New Orleans and Boker’s (1828) from New York. Peychaud’s is the red bitters used in a Sazerac or Vieux Carré cocktail. If you ever visit New Orleans, just pop into the local grocery store and take a bottle or two home with you. Boker’s bitters was found in many cocktail recipe books before becoming extinct, but thankfully it has been raised from the dead by Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Bitters. Some of the vintage cocktails that called for Boker’s include the Japanese Cocktail, Martinez, Manhattan, and Crusta.

 

Orange Bitters and Fee’s Bitters

Orange bitters was called for in the first known Martini recipe seen in print, in 1862. After Prohibition until the early 2000s the only bitters available was Angostura. When Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 was produced in 2005 by cocktail author, historian, and bartender Gary Regan, it opened the bitters floodgate. Fee’s Bitters, who had been in business in Rochester, New York, from 1835, also saw a decline in sales when Prohibition began, so they focused on altar wines and continued with wine until the 2000s when the cocktail culture started to flourish. As of 2016, Fee’s now offers seventeen types of bitters, botanical waters, syrups, and more.

 

Bitters Bottles

You may have noticed many little bottles all around the drink-making station of your local bar. Those are bitters bottles. Some will be purchased bitters and some will be made from scratch by your bartenders.

 

Bitters Around the World

Today, there are too many bitters companies to mention and many bartenders are making their own bitters. Never in the history of the cocktail culture has there been so many flavors to choose from. Check out these flavors: Gumbo, Tex-Mex, Memphis BBQ, Holiday Pie, Figgy Pudding, Mi Casa, Creole, Celery Shrub, Hellfire, Winter Melon, Orange Cream, Hoped Grapefruit, Jamaican Jerk, Cherry Bark, Blackstrap, Roasted Macadamia, Wild Mountain Sage, Palo Santo, Vanilla Chai, Hair of the Dog, Bitter Frost, Smoked Chili, and Wormwood Bitters.

 

 

Some of the top companies producing bitters around the world include AZ Bitters Lab, Basement Bitters, Bittercube Bitters, Bitter End Bitters, Bittered Sling Bitters, Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Bitters, Dram Bitters, El Guapo Bitters, Fees’s Brothers Bitters, Hella Bitter, Old Men Bitters, Scrappy’s Bitters, the Bittered Truth Bitters, the Cocktail Experiment Bitters, and Urban Moonshine Organic Bitters.

 

Digestive Bitters

There are also spirits that have bitter qualities, and many countries have their own. They are measured into cocktails in ounces, not dashes. The most popular include Amer Picon, Aperol, Averna, Becherovka, Campari, Cynar, Fernet, Branca, and Jägermeister.

 

Homemade Bitters Preparation

Before you turn your kitchen into a DIY bitters lab, it is best to prepare. Here are some items to gather.

 

A few quart-sized Mason jars.

 

Any high-proof liquor (80 proof or higher). A lot of beginners like to start with vodka because it’s neutral. But later you can try other spirits such as whiskey and tequila. Just keep in mind they will add to the flavor. 

 

Filters of some sort like cheesecloth, a fine strainer, or a coffee filter.

 

Small dropper or bitters bottles of your choosing.

 

Fancy or plain labels of your choosing, or just use masking tape.

 

A small funnel to fit into the small bottles.

 

Your choice of herbs, spices, seeds, dried fruit peels, whole fresh fruit, flora, botanicals, roots, etc. To help you get started think dried fruit, dried citrus peels, dried flora, coffee beans, peppercorn, star anise, cracked whole nutmeg, juniper berries, cherry bark, etc. Barks may be easier to find online.

 

Once you hunt and gather your ingredients, put them in the jar and fill with the spirit. It will need to infuse for several weeks to draw out the flavor. Each day you should agitate the jar to mix up everything. When ready, strain the mixture into another jar using cheesecloth or a very fine strainer. Some people with use both.

 

The solids that you catch in the strainer then need to be put into a pot with some water and brought to a boil, then simmered for fifteen minutes. Put all of that mixture into a separate jar and let sit for one week.

 

When ready, strain out the solids. The solids can be thrown away. Combine the two jars of liquid you’ve created, and if the end result has sediment in the bottom or floating in the mixture, you’ll need to strain it again.

 

Lastly, you can add a little sweetener to make it more palatable. You can use honey, maple syrup, molasses, or rich simple syrup (two parts sugar to one part water dissolved into a syrup). Shake it all up, and now you are ready to bottle.  

 

 

A Few Bitters Recipes

Basic Bitters

Makes 16 ounces

 

Pinch cardamom

Pinch caraway

Pinch coriander seeds

1 cup dried bitter orange peel

2 cups grain alcohol

2 tablespoons honey

 

Combine all the ingredients into a sterilized jar with a lid and allow to sit in a cool dark place for three weeks, agitating it every day. When ready, strain through cheesecloth or a fine strainer into another jar. Bring the solids caught in the strainer to a boil with water and then simmer for fifteen minutes. Put all that mixture into a lidded jar and allow to sit for one week. When ready, strain and combine with the first strained jar. Add the sweetener, shake, and then funnel into dropper or bitters bottles.

 

Bourbon Pecan Bitters

Makes 16 ounces

 

1/2 cup roasted pecans

2 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1 vanilla bean, split

1 tablespoon wild cherry bark

1 tablespoon gentian root

2 cups high-proof Bourbon

2 tablespoons maple syrup

 

Combine all the ingredients into a sterilized jar with a lid and allow to sit in a cool dark place for three weeks, agitating it every day. When ready, strain through cheesecloth or a fine strainer into another jar. Bring the solids caught in the strainer to a boil with water and then simmer for fifteen minutes. Put all that mixture into a lidded jar and allow to sit for one week. When ready, strain and combine with the first strained jar. Add the sweetener, shake, and then funnel into dropper or bitters bottles.

 

Lavender Bitters

Makes 16 ounces

 

1 cup dried lavender

1/2 cup orange peels

1 vanilla pod, split

2 cups grain alcohol

2 tablespoons agave nectar

 

Combine all the ingredients into a sterilized jar with a lid and allow to sit in a cool, dark place for three weeks, agitating it every day. When ready, strain through cheesecloth or a fine strainer into another jar. Bring the solids caught in the strainer to a boil with water and then simmer for fifteen minutes. Put all that mixture into a lidded jar and allow to sit for one week. When ready, strain and combine with the first strained jar. Add the sweetener, shake, and then funnel into dropper or bitters bottles.

 

Orange Bitters

Makes 16 ounces

 

1 cup orange peels

2 cardamom pods

Pinch coriander seeds

1 teaspoon fennel seed

10 drops gentian extract

2 cups grain alcohol

2 tablespoons rich simple syrup

 

Combine all the ingredients into a sterilized jar with a lid and allow to sit in a cool, dark place for three weeks, agitating it every day. When ready, strain through cheesecloth or a fine strainer into another jar. Bring the solids caught in the strainer to a boil with water and then simmer for fifteen minutes. Put all that mixture into a lidded jar and allow to sit for one week. When ready, strain and combine with the first strained jar. Add the sweetener, shake, and then funnel into dropper or bitters bottles.

Johann Boker created Boker’s bitters in 1828 and one hundred years later, it went extinct. Adam Elmegirab re-created Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters in 2009.

 Adam Elmegirab

Fee Brother's Bitters Flickr by Scott Schiller 

alchemybottleshop.com 

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Contact Me!
cheryl@misscharming.com
You can use this address or the
contact form to the right...up to you.

If you don't hear back from

me in a timely manner then
Facebook message me.
  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black LinkedIn Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Black YouTube Icon
  • Pinterest - Black Circle