Bitters are the salt and pepper of your drink. Not sure how many times I’ve heard that one. It’s true in that bitters bring out flavors, add complexity in your drinks, and tie the components together. Like The Dude’s rug. They also ARE the difference maker when comparing drinks at home and drinks made by a pro at a bar. Similar to how the use of stock and demi-glacé are the difference makers in comparing restaraunt food and home cooked meals. So maybe bitters are the demi-glacé of your drink, as they elevate a recipe to something you’d actually pay for.
Let’s start using demi-glacé instead of salt and pepper, demi-glacé is a far douchier comparison/metaphor.
I must note that if you free pour you will have an unbalanced drink no matter the use of bitters or quality of your ingredients. MEASURE!
Everyone knows Angostura of Trinidad and most drinkers know Peychaud’s of NOLA fame. Those two are must haves, but I would add Regan’s Orange to that list and if you were to offer four bitters I’d go with Boker’s.
The first three are available at most fine grocers and certainly any liquor store worth it’s salt. Boker’s isn’t. You have a couple options on this, make your own or buy Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s version, also available at Cocktail Kingdom , my go to for difficult to find cocktail related gear and ingredients.
I own Dr. Adams Spanish Bitters and Dandelion and Burdock bitters. They run you about $25 a pop. I made my own Boker’s because I could and didn’t want to drop another $25 into Dr. Adam’s limey pocket. He’s based out of England and I am a Patriot.
Therefore I needed a recipe to make my own. If you don’t own a copy of David Wondrich’s Imbibe I suggest you buy it, both for it’s history of the cocktail and individual cocktails and for the authentic recipes. The Joy of Mixology is the other must have. In Imbibe Wondrich gives an excellent recipe that you can tinker with as far as quantities.
1.5 Oz Quassia
1.5 Oz Calamus
1.5 Oz Catechu
1.0 Oz Cardamom
2.0 Oz Dried Orange Peel
Macerate for ten days in a half gallon of over proofed rum, such as Trader Vic’s from The Wine and Cheese Place. You can then add water to get whatever proof you wish. I don’t add any as I want my bitters strong.
Some may suggest adding the cardamom a day or two into the maceration process as it tends to overpower in flavor. These seemingly rare ingredients are readily available at Cheryl’s Herbs on Manchester just west of McCausland.
So, now you have all you truly need, but you’ve probably seen a lot more then these four at your local cocktail bar or liquor store. Mole, peach, hops, cherry, mint, etc. Why do they have these? It’s the same reason Anchorman enjoyed the smell of mahogany and leather bound books. It’s to make you want them or think that those who have them are somehow above you. I’ve got a lot of wood, books and bitters myself.
Though not necessary at home they can be fun to play with and though not necessary at the bar they help you know that the bar your at at least has the ingredients to make a good drink and I personally love the aesthetics of having them all lined up at the bar as seen here at Root Down in Denver.
Three more bitters I’d buy, but aren’t must haves, are Tiki, Rhubarb and Mole. First, I’d buy Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters, great stuff. Just wonderful in summer rum drinks like the Baguio Skin.
Fee Brothers makes a great Rhubarb bitters. It’s an excellent way to add some sweetness and that funky rhubarb flavor. It can be too sweet if you add too much, but when using sparingly can be a great additive to rye or bourbon.
The above mentioned Bitter Truth Mole Bitters is another great addition to a home bar. Using it is like adding the essence of bitter-sweet chocolate. It’s adding that essence and no sweetness that makes their product shine. And is also what I love about my house made varieties.
Even with all the bitters I have, the one bittering flavor I longed for, but couldn’t find was ginger. I wanted to add ginger without adding sweetness. I tried using Canton, but it is far too sweet for my palate and doesn’t add enough gingery heat. So, I took some fresh grated, dried cracked and powdered ginger, added a allspice berry or two and some lemon peal with a pint of 151 along with many of the components of the Boker’s bitters and let it sit. After two weeks I strained it with a coffee filter and added more cracked ginger and let it sit for two more weeks. Add as much ginger as you want. In a pint jar I probably had an inch of solids at the bottom. What I was left with was exactly what I was searching for. A spicey, gingery, dry bitters to perfect the following two recipes;
IT’S A FALL DAY
1.5 Oz Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy
1.0 Oz Drambuie
0.5 Oz Lemon Juice or Aperol
4.0 Drops Ginger Bitters
If using Aperol, combine in stirring pitcher with ice, stir 25 times, strain into coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist. If using lemon then shake the drink.
Working a bit of Allspice or Pimento Dram into this equation is a nice option. Or just a dash or two of Angostura.
The drinks name came from a song my sister and I used to sing that my mom always brings up when its a fall day. The drink recipe came from me working with Esquire Magazine’s Aperol based formula. They use Aperol as a bittering agent. This is popular with other Italian bitters, Amaros, and Avernas. My favorite being Cynar, but the industry’s favorite being Fernet-Branca, I actually prefer Luxardo’s Fernet, less Menthol. That’s all for another blog.
The other drink is the El Diablito, my shrinking of the long/tall drink the El Diablo into a short cocktail. Long drinks just aren’t my thing.
2.0 Oz Reposado Tequila (Espalon)
.50 Oz Creme de Cassis
.50 Lime Juice
5.0 Drops Ginger Bitters
Combine in Boston Shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 25 seconds, double strain with your normal strainer and a tea strainer and serve with a grape fruit twist.
The two most commonly seen bitters at the bar are Angostura and Peychaud’s, but Fee Brothers and Bitter Truth are the top brands for your “flavored” bitters. Many prefer Bitter Truth because they are alcohol based as opposed to glycerin and because they are dryer and are more complex. Fee Brothers are much cheaper, but tend to be too sweet for my palate. The difference is $5 per bottle on FB and $15 per on BT.
I have a collection of each brand. I’d like to acquire BT’s Lemon and their Celery bitters. My most recent purchase was Black Walnut by FB and I’ve been happy with it and look forward to using it this summer with ginger beer based concoctions.
Along with the Boker’s and Ginger Bitters I’ve also made a few other bitters.
The Christmas bitters is the same formula with a lot of baking spices and some 151. I used the Boker’s recipe minus the cardamom and orange. The other ingredients in the Boker’s add the bittering flavor and help round out what you add to make it “X” bitters. The Fruit Loop bitters are heavy on the cardamom and fruit peels, more of an experiment.
You will find with different base spirits, different bitters are best. Boker’s with gin, Spanish with wood aged spirits, hops and grapefruit with Tequila. BT’s Mole works well with a lot of spirits. I love it in Cynar. Just as certain bitters wok well with certain spirits, certain spirits work well when making certain bitters. 151 is what I use when I’m going to have baking spices in the mix. If it’s an herbal formula, I reach for some white dog rye. I don’t used everclear or vodka. I don’t make drinks with those products, so why let them sneak in through my bitters.
The FB options, especially the peach, are good when used to soak a sugar cube with before you then toss it in a St. Germaine coated champagne flute and then fill with champagne. That’s as good as a Kir Royal or some funky cold medina when it comes to the ladies. FB’s cherry adds something to a Manhattan and FB’s mint to a Julep, but depending on the drinker, what they add may be a bit too sweet or overpowering. Use FB’s offerings conservatively. You can’t take them out once you’ve dashed them in.
In the end, embrace bitters, use them liberally, and help bring your at home cocktail to the level of an at the lounge cocktail. It’s also a nice piece to add when taking pictures of your concoction for Facebook, they really tie together and add complexity to the photo as well as the glass.