Looking to step up your home bar? Make a batch of bitters, that magic ingredient that gives classic cocktails like Manhattans and Sazeracs their signature kick and complexity. Blending your own lets you customize the flavor and strength of the bitters, so drinks come out just the way you like them — and our kit makes it simple. Learn all about bitters in our Q&A with artisan distillery Dutch’s Spirits, our partner in creating the kit, then read on to see how it’s done, step by step. We’ve also included a couple of cocktail recipes to make with your finished bitters.
What exactly are bitters, and how are they used in cocktails?
First compounded as medicinal remedies in the early 1800s, bitters soon became a popular cocktail ingredient. Today, countless bitters recipes have been developed using a variety of botanicals, fruits, and roots that are distilled in base liquor. With just a few drops, they provide a welcome kick and complexity to cocktails and should be considered an essential component for any bar.
Describe the process of making bitters.
Selecting the right mix of botanicals and spices is often the most challenging aspect. Once you’ve figured out a good blend of both bittering and aromatic botanicals, the next step is proper extraction of those essences. Techniques are wide ranging and can include maceration, steeping, boiling, compounding, pressing and filtering. For a basic process, botanicals should steep in high proof alcohol for at least 10 days with regular agitation to ensure the flavors are fully extracted. Depending on the strength of the alcohol and botanicals being used, steeping time will vary, so it’s a good idea to start testing on day 8 or 9. Steeping can be done with fine mesh or muslin bags to avoid a cumbersome filtering process upon completion, or for smaller batches, the stainless steel tea ball infuser works very well.
What’s the advantage of making bitters yourself versus buying them?
When it comes down to it, a basic bitters recipe is simple and easy to follow. So, if you’re a crafty Do-It-Yourselfer, someone who likes making their own jams and butter and pickled vegetables, then this is right up your alley. Making your own bitters also allows you to experiment with new ingredients and suit them to your own taste. If you like your bitters to be very bold in flavor or more bitter, you can adjust the steeping times accordingly or even play with the strength or type of base spirit you use. The Dutch’s Spirits DIY kit also includes hardware that can be used time and time again, so it’s a much better value for the home artisan. Not to mention the satisfaction you’ll have by saying you make your own bitters!
Tell us about the flavor combinations in the Williams-Sonoma kit. How do those flavors work in cocktails?
In the kit, we provide two flavors: Aromatic and Citrus Ginger. The Aromatic blend produces a bitters that works very well in whiskey and bourbon cocktails, providing hints of allspice and clove. Meanwhile, the Citrus Ginger works great in gin- and vodka-based martinis.
How long will the finished bitters last?
The finished bitters should last indefinitely if stored in a cool dark place.
Any other tips or serving suggestions for using them and mixing with them?
Aside from alcoholic beverages, people also use bitters to flavor club soda, iced tea and variety of other drinks. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Bitters come together in a few easy steps, but it takes a couple of weeks for the flavors to fully infuse and develop. Our kit has all the ingredients and equipment you need (besides the vodka), and you can reuse the tools repeatedly.
DAY 1: Add botanicals — dried spices, roots, herbs, and more — to an infuser ball (similar to a tea ball) and latch it shut. Place the infuser ball at the bottom of a jar, then pour 100-proof vodka into the jar, filling to just below the neck. Close the jar and latch it shut, reserving the empty vodka bottle. Store the jar in a cool, dark place for 10 days, and swirl the contents vigorously every day.
DAY 11: Open the jar, remove the infuser ball, and discard the botanicals. Pour bittering agents into the infuser, close and latch it shut, and place the ball back into the jar. Return the jar to a cool, dark storage place for the next 4 days, swirling the contents vigorously for 30 seconds every day.
DAY 15: Open the jar and remove the infuser ball. Discard the bittering agents. If you’re bottling your bitters, use a funnel to pour the bitters from the jar into the bottle, filling to just below the neck.
TIP: For a more intense concentration of flavors, you can bump up infusion times. Botanicals may infuse up to an additional 10 days; bittering agents, up to an additional 4 days. Sample the bitters daily to taste the progress and find your ideal flavor.
Enjoy your homemade bitters with these easy-to-mix cocktails, which require just a few ingredients. The first is a classic; the second may become a house specialty.
2 oz. rye whiskey or bourbon
1 tsp. sugar or 1/2 oz. simple syrup
4 dashes Aromatic bitters
Stir all until sugar is dissolved. Add ice and garnish with a large slice of lemon peel.
3 oz. London dry gin
3/4 oz. dry vermouth
2 dashes Citrus Ginger bitters
Stir all with ice. Strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.