If you’re a fan of cocktails, you’ve probably noticed the bottle with an oversized white paper label perched near your bartender’s station. This is Angostura bitters, the quintessential cocktail bitter that’s integral to drinks like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. Next to the bottle of Ango (as bar folk call it) you’ll find at the very least two other bitters bottles with paper labels. These are Peychaud’s and Regan’s Orange, and together with Angostura they make up the holy trinity of bitters.
But today there are dozens, if not hundreds, of bitters on the market, putting the essence of everything from lavender to whiskey barrels to salted caramel in the hands of professional bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts worldwide. And while you should purchase the classics — Ango, Peychaud’s, and Regan’s Orange — because their recipes are kept well protected, you can actually make your own cocktail bitters, just as many bars do.
Bitters are essentially tinctures: high proof, neutral grain alcohol infused with herbs to create a specific flavor or effect. According to the brand Angostura, Angostura bitters, the first to be bottled and distributed, were created by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in the 1820s to help settle the stomachs of seasick sailors. Peychaud’s was used for similar health benefits in the mid 1800s in New Orleans. The recipes are kept strictly under wraps (and trademarked), but both have earthy, cinnamon-y notes and both are thought to aid hangover queasiness.
Contemporary recipes for bitters use the basic tenets of these 19th-century classics — alcohol plus herbs — as guides for making everything from spiced apple to xocolatl mole bitters. The process is simple and takes between two and five days to complete: After combining the ingredients in a jar, taste the mixture once or twice a day, and then give the jar a shake. When the liquid has reached your desired level of flavor, you simply strain out the herbs, spices, or fruits you’ve used and bottle the completed bitters for future cocktail experiments.
Here’s everything you’ll need:
While it’s possible to buy bitters that are completely alcohol-free (the Fee Brothers bitters line is entirely non-alcoholic and uses glycerin instead of grain alcohol), to make classic bitters, you’ll need hard liquor. It’s the alcohol that extracts the flavors of the botanical elements you’ll be adding, and while any alcoholic beverage can be infused with botanicals or other flavors, the higher the ABV the better. Every college student’s worst nightmare, Everclear, with its complete lack of inherent flavor and 76 percent ABV is actually a great option.
Angostura bitters are 46 percent alcohol-by-volume (ABV), or 92 proof: a full shot will definitely increase your blood alcohol level. Because bitters are used most often in dashes, though, their alcohol content in a mixed drink or cocktail is negligible.
Batch size doesn’t need to be precise when it comes to making bitters, but the more liquid you have, the more herbs you’re going to need. Bitters are meant to be concentrated, so you probably won’t need a whole gallon-sized container. Having several, pint or quart Ball jars will allow you to keep multiple bitters batches “cooking” at once, letting you experiment with flavors more efficiently.
Flavors: Herbs, spices, fruits, or flowers
The world is your playground when it comes to picking and choosing which bitters flavors you want to make. Leaves, spices, fruit peels, and seeds are the most commonly ingredients for successful infusions. (While you can make bitters with fresh fruits, it’s much more difficult to create the super potent flavors you seek.) The more natural the source the better tasting the tincture. Alcohol leaches the flavors and colors from whatever is added to it; if your botanicals are heavily treated with pesticides, preservatives, dyes, or anything else artificial, that’s going to end up in your bitters, too.
For your first batch, try something spice-based. Not only are ingredients like cinnamon and allspice easy to come by and infuse fairly quickly, these flavors can be used in several different cocktails. Evoking the earthy spiciness of Angostura, homemade cinnamon/allspice bitters can add a nice personal twist to Old Fashioneds or Manhattans, or a layer of complexity to drinks like gin or amaretto sours. Note that there are two ways to approach an infusion with multiple flavors. Let’s say you want to make chamomile and lavender bitters: You can either add both herbs to the same jar; or make lavender-only and chamomile-only infusions and combine them to create exactly the flavor you want.
Some trusted bitters-making botanicals to get you started:
- Herbs and flowers: Think about what works well in tea, and hit up a tea shop like David’s Tea or Mem Tea for loose leaves of chamomile, hibiscus, lavender, lemongrass, or rose. Farmer’s markets are great for fresh herbs, like mint or rosemary.
- Spices: Be sure to use “whole” spices, nothing ground, from a trusted organic brand. Allspice, cardamom, celery seed, dried chiles, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel, ginger, juniper, nutmeg, peppercorns, star anise, and vanilla beans provide a broad range of flavors. Coffee beans and cacao nibs are good options too.
- Fruits: Fresh or dried citrus peels, like lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit; or dried fruit, like figs or raisins all work well for infusing.
- Nuts: Pretty much any nut will make a decent bitter, but they should be toasted first to augment their flavors.
Glass bottles with droppers
Storing your finished product in the right bottle is super important. You’ll need a glass, amber bottle with a screw-top eye dropper to easily dispense teeny-tiny drops of bitters into your drinks. The amber color helps keep out light: Sunshine, heat, and air are the three most destructive elements for alcohol. You can get these Boston round bottles from online herbs and spice shop Mountain Rose Herbs in a variety of sizes. It’s also a good idea to purchase a small funnel for easy transfer from mason jar to eye dropper jar.
Lastly, make sure you have some basic self-adhesive labels on hand so you can identify which tiny amber bottle has which tincture in it. With these supplies on hand you’ll have a broad and flourishing collection of homemade bitters in no time.