DIY Bitters for Your Bar
Our resident bartender challenges herself to make one of mixology’s essential ingredients
Having an empty shaker and a full bar at my mercy always transports me to my childhood backyard, old pickle bucket in hand, scooping dirt, plucking berries and snapping sticks into tiny pieces.
I'd top my mirepoix with a cold swig from the garden hose and haul the soup to the fort where I'd share with my brother and our imaginary fellow warriors. This isn't much different from how I made my first batch of bitters.
Bartenders and novices alike know Angostura and Peychaud's. Since the 1800s, they've been revered for their medicinal purposes and depth they lend to cocktails. But bartenders are also a creative lot, so it's no wonder that within the last decade the bitters market has become saturated with flavors we once never imagined.
That's how Bittercube started, when co-founders Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz (who are also professional bartenders) began experimenting simply out of necessity because they wanted offbeat flavors.
"Bittercube is based on a need to produce unique things," explains Kosevich. Even though their business kicks out hundreds of gallons of handcrafted bitters per month, Kosevich is still supportive of bartenders experimenting behind the bar.
"Creative exploration is still super important," he asserts. "(But) the most important thing is learning about botanicals. There's a long process of just learning how to extract different botanicals in high-proof spirits."
Maybe that was my downfall. I peeled oranges, diced pears, grated ginger and added them to my bucket with some scoops of bittering agents I couldn't pronounce. Without isolating each ingredient, however, I really had no good grasp of who was bringing what to the table.
After agitating every day for a month, the resulting concoction was indeed pear-forward, but nowhere close to being potent and flavorful enough for a dropper full to do any good in a cocktail. It wasn't a total loss; my co-workers and I passed around a goblet of the thick nectar to warm our broken hearts and feed ourselves boozy pears as an after-bar dessert.
Kosevich warns that making your own bitters can be expensive, time consuming and inconsistent. "For me, the first place to start is making tinctures," he says. "Take high-proof spirits, infuse them with coriander, then maybe caraway, and see what those flavors are doing individually before you start to combine them."
Another more approachable place to start your experimenting is to infuse a bottle of bitters you already have.
"Rather than making something from scratch," Kosevich suggests, "take something that's already been built and add more layers to that."
Getting creative behind the bar is one of the most fun aspects of the job, and concocting your own bitters absolutely sets your bar apart. Nobody else will be able to offer what you have, and you are in complete control of your flavors and aromatics. But you must be patient with your creations and allow for plenty of trial and error. The experts are always there when you need them.
“Rather than making something from scratch, take something that’s already been built and add more layers to that.”
- Nick Kosevich, co-founder of Bittercube
There are times we have to realize we can’t spread ourselves too thin by being stuck in the lab instead of behind the bar. These are the times we open our wallets and support the experts of the bitters craft. Fortunately, there are bitters we can feel confident attempting on our own. So when should you DIY and when should you buy?
Buy Corazón (Bittercube).
This intoxicating blend of cocoa, coffee and six varieties of chili pepper is one of my go-to bitters, and my favorite in Bittercube’s lineup. I’ve used this in coffee cocktails, micheladas, even in my homemade veggie chili. It adds a depth that you didn’t even know was missing. Trust me, and treat yourself to a bottle. Don’t even try to DIY this. You can’t.
DIY Orange Bitters.
Orange is one of those versatile bitters that can find a home in almost any cocktail, whether it be a margarita, Sazerac, Old Fashioned, even a good ol’ Arnold Palmer. Luckily, it’s also a great candidate for your first batch because it’s pretty straight-forward. The most important thing to note is to use a high-proof spirit or you won’t extract the flavors you want. Once you’ve nailed the base, split up the batch and try adding a complementary flavor to build off the orange. (Try cocoa nib or coriander!)
- 1 cup 130 proof to 190 proof neutral grain spirit (vodka works fine)
- Peels and pith from one whole orange
- Clean glass jar with lid
Infuse for about 10 days, shaking daily. Strain when you feel ready.
DIY Coriander Tincture.
I love coriander because its flavor is so multi-faceted. On one hand, it’s earthy, on the other, it’s got underlying notes of citrus. This makes it an awesome candidate to play around with in cocktails. Grab lots of clean glass jars for experimenting. In one, use the seeds as is. In another, try toasting the seeds first. In another, crush the seeds. Which do you prefer? From there, you can move on to infusing complementary flavors. Now you’re on your way to creating your own bitters recipe.