As the list of truisms on our fridge notes, in a country without really good drinks, you must make your own.
Having made satisfying batches of preserved lemons and oranges that work beautifully as cocktail garnishes, the next step was bitters – the key to any sophisticated cocktail and the difference between a decent drink and a subtle one. Problem: in the liquor stores of Weibdeh, no bitters could be found. So I decided to go DIY.
The result has brought more than a little joy, and not just because the resulting cocktails are delicious, or because as a kid I always loved making potions. They’re also, well, beautiful. William Morris tells us to put nothing in our homes that we do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful; home-brewed bitters are happily both.
A quick Google search turned up Tim Knittel’s excellent directions for DIY bitters, and this post is based upon his recipes.
You will need:
About 2 liters of vodka that is flavorless and at least 100-proof. You can also use other liquor, as long as it’s 100-proof or stronger, but all I’ve worked with so far is vodka
12-20 mason or other clean, glass jars with lids (depending on how many ingredients you want to work with)
Ingredients – the fun part: your favorites herbs and spices.
Essentially what you’ll do is seep these ingredients in vodka for 5-21 days in individual bottles – I used 3/4 a cup of vodka per the ingredients listed below. After about 5 days or so, you’ll start testing for flavor (I found that a good way to do this was to put a dash of the bitters in about a shot’s worth of club soda and taste. You want the flavor of the herb/spice to be strong and distinctive but not too overwhelming; below I have noted how long each of my ingredients ended up needing.
As a general principle, if you want the flavor to take faster, you can add more of the flavoring ingredient, but if less of it sits for longer it gives the bitters a little more oomph and subtlety. At the same time, I found that with some ingredients, after a week or two I had to go back and add more of the original ingredient for the flavor to come through. Most of the photographs shown here are from the first day of brewing: you’ll notice that the vodka hasn’t taken on much color in most cases. That changes quickly.
Once you’ve gotten essences you’re happy with, strain out the original spices or herbs, and begin experimenting with blends. Recipes for cocktails will be forthcoming, but to give you an idea: so far I’ve blended some orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, and florals for a Manhattan; rosemary, thyme, and sage for an earthier gin and tonic, and put saffron bitters in an Earl Grey hot toddy. The possibilities are endless.
Cinnamon: 1/2 tsp, powdered; this flavor took very quickly and was done in about 2 weeks
Ginger: 1/2 tsp, powdered; took a while; had to add another 1/2 tsp after 2 weeks, and was ready in 3 weeks
Cloves: six whole cloves; took 3 weeks
Nutmeg: 1/2 tsp, powdered; 3 weeks
Hibiscus: small bunch (several tablespoons), dried and not ground; 2 weeks
Mixed flowers (dried flowers from the local spice shop): small bunch (several tablespoons), dried and not ground; about 2 weeks
Anise: whole seeds, about 1/2 tsp; about 2 weeks
Saffron: started with a generous pinch – it’s expensive stuff – but after about a month the flavor was so subtle that I added a few more. Results forthcoming.
Rosemary: 1/2 tsp dried (not ground); added another heaping teaspoon after 2 weeks and then left for another week
Zaatar/thyme: 1/2 tsp dried/ground; about 2 weeks
Sage/maramiyya: started with a small bunch (a few tablespoons) of dried leaves left whole. Strong after 9 days, but needed a full 2 weeks
Zest of 2 oranges: dried for several days; nearly a month
Zest of 2 lemons: the first lemon’s zest was dried out; when I added the second, after about 2 weeks, they were fresh and just needed a few extra days to finish off the essence; finished after a month
Dried mint: half a standard bunch, dried out and crumbled
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