Just about any drink can be layered for a more complex flavor with the right dash of bitters, so it’s standard to find a few different bottles in the well-stocked liquor cabinet. So, which ones will serve you best? Let’s talk. As a fan of a good cocktail, the maker in me loves to combine good ingredients into something even better. So my home bar is stocked with the staples, and a few extras to make those cocktails really memorable. By far, the most interesting ingredients I have in stock are the little bottles of bitters. These mystery concoctions add a bit of bitterness of course, but in addition can bring some sweetness, a bit or sour, or even some spice to that highball. They're like the salt and pepper of the liquor cabinet - the manage to make the other ingredients taste more like themselves.
Bitters began as patent medicines peddled by traveling apothecaries way before we knew how to actually treat everything from gout to consumption. The voracity of their beneficial claims were always a bit suspect, but with distinct flavors they easily found their way into cocktails as a flavoring agent to really make that mix shine. Even if a recipe doesn't call for bitters, it's perfectly acceptable to add a dash or two (that's a couple drops or so) to just about any cocktail for a new take on the flavor. Just be sure to keep them in the same family of drinks for best results:
- Citrus bitters – Light and fresh, good with effervescent drinks. Grapefruit or lemon bitters are a popular sweet mix with the tart sour flavors balanced by a light bitter finish and underlying sweetness.
- Angostura bitters – If a recipe doesn't specify a type, go for Angostura. Think sweet flavors with a distinct, well, bitter undertone. The flavor on this is heavier and pairs well with dark, syrupy drinks.
- Peychaud's bitters - Another of the "old fashioned" bitters, this time with a lovely pink color and a decidedly anise-y, licorice-y undertone.
- Spiced bitters – Great to spice up a drink with a punch of cloves, allspice, cinnamon, or nutmeg. This could be fairly called a fall or winter ingredient, but don’t just confine it to the holidays. Best for creamy drinks, or something a bit too sweet that needs some balance.
Of course there are many different variations that fall loosely in the categories above, so finding your favorite will likely take a bit of experimenting, and don’t be afraid to branch out and try something new every chance you get.
Can you make your own? You bet. Here’s a simple recipe to make some fresh and certainly a bit cheaper than $20 a bottle.
Here’s a recipe to get started: Grapefruit Bitters
- 1.5 cups 80-100 proof vodka
- 2 large grapefruits, sliced (pulp and rinds)
- 2 tbsp fresh shredded ginger root
- 1 tsp Juniper berries (dried)
- 1 tsp Genecian root
- ¼ cup Simple Syrup
- 1 tsp Lavender flowers (dried)
- ½ tsp Coriander seeds (crushed)
In a large mason jar, combine all ingredients but simple syrup. Shake well and let for 7 days.
Strain mixture through a cheesecloth, then again through a coffee filter into a final container. Add simple syrup and gently combine.
Sounds simple? Try it out yourself and let us know what you think!