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Let’s Make Our Own Damn Bitters And Remember The Great Happy Hours Of The Before Times

Jars containing the various components of the finished bitters.
Photo: Chris Thompson

I spent my 30s enjoying cocktail bars and good cocktails, and then I spent the last 14 months stuck at home in rural Virginia, acutely, painfully missing the experience of sitting at a good bar, surrounded by happy people, and trusting a good bartender to make me a really fucking good cocktail. I've tried, often, to approximate the experience by making cocktails at home, but you will quite simply never make yourself a genuinely excellent cocktail by following the basic recipes of cocktail manuals and so forth, or even the official IBA versions. Never for as long as you live.

The larger part of this is because more is going on at a good cocktail bar than just the booze in the glass, and no cocktail slurped down in your kitchen is going to transport you to a place where murmured after-work gossip, the clinking of glassware, a sudden twinkling laugh, the cool zinc under your elbows, and the bustle of a living environment do some not-insignificant part of the intoxicating. I miss being in a lively bar so intensely! I think I would hack off my left pinky finger at this very moment if by doing so I could get one good happy hour at a not-too-crowded cocktail bar without this damn pandemic quite literally breathing down on me. Fuck!

The other reason homemade cocktails come up short is because really good bartenders at really good bars often will not settle for just pumping out the IBA Negroni. They've got their favorite vermouths, they're adding a splash of amaro, or doing little cutie-pie tricks with wood smoke or leather aging. Or, most commonly, they're adding a little splash of some house-made bitters or syrups they've got stashed in little bottles along the bar. Not necessarily because—or not only because—their bar menu has to be distinguishable from 300 other bars in town while also at least gesturing at the only 15 drinks anyone ever orders anywhere on earth, ever, but also because really good bartenders enjoy booze and enjoy cocktails and, like really good chefs, they thrive on taking something ordinary and making it special. Their best moves are the sorts of things that'll go overlooked at home simply because most of us are not bartenders, and therefore are not doing the mixology shit that makes elevating a cocktail at home a real option.

So we're going to make some bitters we can sock away with the booze in our liquor cabinets or along our countertop or in our bedside tables. No, our bitters will not come close to transporting us fully to the great bar scenes of yore, but our bitters will be delicious and homemade and very special. Also it will be bitter as hell. Screw it, man! We are grown people with adventurous palates, and by God we can punch up a cocktail with some assertive, bracing bitterness without suddenly becoming the cocktail equivalent of vile IPA fanboys. And when you make a cocktail at home with your very own bitters, and it comes out delicious (which it will), you really will experience a rush of that excitement of feeling like this cocktail, this one right here, this is one of the special cocktails of my life.

You will need some booze, for this is a booze thing we are making. You will need some bitter things, for it is also a bitter thing. And you will need some flavor things, so that it will taste good, in addition to being bitter and boozy.

Selecting and tracking down your bitter ingredients will be fun. Lots of things are bitter, but not too many of them will pack the wallop necessary to transform a cocktail with just a couple dashes. In fact, the kinds of things we want for this recipe are generally not treated as food in standard American cuisine, precisely because they are so intensely bitter. Lots of folks do not get much closer to real dank bitterness than, say, radicchio, which is bitter and tasty but which is baby stuff compared to what we're after. What we want is real alchemist shit, stuff that witches stir around in big cauldrons and later use to turn wayward travelers into toads. Stuff like gentian root and burdock root and quassia chips, the sort of stuff where if you popped a handful of it into your mouth and took a chew your head would implode.

But one does not simply knock on a witch's door and ask for a handful of gentian root, not without risking an immediate toadening. Unless you have some sort of apothecary nearby you may need to order this stuff online. Here is a good place to find all kinds of cool herbs and roots and so forth. You will find bitters recipes that use gentian root, quassia chips, burdock root, cinchona bark, chicory leaves, rhubarb, or even just a huge quantity of citrus peel. The only ingredient I'm going to insist upon for this particular bitters project is a small bag of gentian root. Gentian root reigns supreme as the single most bitter thing in nature that is also edible, and you will recognize the taste from things like Campari and Aperol. For adventure's sake I am going to recommend adding a second bitter ingredient, a dealer's choice that will make your bitters a little more complex and fun. Burdock root is mildly bitter and tasty, and I recommend it in combination with gentian root, which will do most of the heavy lifting. Quassia is another familiar flavor, from tonic water. Rhubarb is delightful. Pick something and get a small quantity, a pinch or two.

Gentian root will make your bitters bitter. You'll also want to make it aromatic and tasty, and for this we can use some common kitchen type stuff. Citrus peel will go a long way and is a natural fit. Spices from your cupboard will do great, things like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, allspice, and star anise. It's fine and immensely rewarding to come up with more exciting combinations, too—dried cherries and vanilla bean, or cherry bark, or walnut leaves, or sumac or juniper berries, or coffee or tonka beans, or ginger, or lavender, or raisins. Almost anything that tastes good and can be steeped can be used in bitters. Dried hot peppers? Currants? Lemongrass? Yes, dammit, yes! If you want a perfectly excellent bitters that will not require much hunting around for exotic ingredients, get three navel oranges, two big grapefruits, some little spice bottles of star anise, cloves, and allspice, and a bag of sumac berries. A few of those spices you probably have in your spice rack today. Sumac berries are reasonably common, but you can also order some when you order your roots.

Finally, you will need booze. For the most part your bitters will be used to punch up whiskey cocktails, and so we will want to steep our ingredients in whiskey. Since the alcohol is being used for steeping, and since we will want the end product to last for a long time, ideally you will use a higher-proof whiskey, something 100-proof or higher. But it will be fine to use any whiskey you happen to have around, or whatever is your favorite, or whatever is cheap. You'll be doling out your bitters a few tiny dashes at a time, and it will be heavily altered by the bittering, so probably I would not use any extremely high-end, expensive stuff for this. Whatever you choose, you will need three cups of whiskey. And you are going to need at least three sealable jars, preferably of the standard mason jar size.

Get your citrus out onto your counter and grab a peeler or a zester and get going. You are going to peel or zest all three oranges and both grapefruits, and then you are going to deposit all the peels or zest onto a sheet of tinfoil or a clean baking dish. Unlike with limoncello, it will not be quite so important that you avoid all pith, so you can peel a little bit more aggressively. On the other hand, the less pith you use, the better your citrus flavor will be, so if you have the stamina to peel and scrape, by all means peel and scrape. When you've got all your citrus peel or zest on the foil or baking sheet or whatever, sock it in the oven, turn the oven on the lowest temperature, and let it sit in there for ... a while. The goal is to gently dry out the citrus peel without burning it. Zest will dry much more quickly than peels, especially if you spread it around in a thin layer. Don't worry about being too fine with this—check on it after 10 minutes, and then every 5 or 10 minutes. Pull it out of the oven, sift it around, give it a sniff. Once it is observably drier than it was before and you have had enough of this shit, call it a job well done and get it out of there.

We are going to steep this citrus stuff in its own separate batch of booze. Drop all the citrus action into one of your jars and pour a cup of whiskey over it. Use a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula or whatever to kind of smash the citrus action down into the booze, then screw the lid onto the jar and put it in one of your kitchen cabinets or your pantry or whatever. It is going to sit there for 10 days, with a nice vigorous daily shake or swirl to tumble the citrus. The peels will soften and break down and leave a lot of orange color in the booze, and it will start to smell intensely citrus-y and wonderful within hours. Fun!

Back to Day 1: You've got gentian root and hopefully one other bitter ingredient to work with. Take a half a tablespoon or so of each of your bitter ingredients, drop them into your second jar, and pour a cup of booze down over them. You can go heavier on the bitter stuff if you want, but please do not go lighter, or you will be known the world over as a big baby. Screw the lid on this jar, give it a good shake, and sock it in the cabinet or pantry next to the citrus jar. This, too, will steep for 10 days, with a good shake every day to move things along.

Also on Day 1: Take one star anise ... star, two or three cloves, a couple little allspice berries, and a little pinch of sumac berries, drop them into the third jar, and pour a cup of whiskey over them. As with the bitter jar, you can juke the quantities as much as you like. Go crazy! Screw the lid on this jar, shake it up, and put it with its fellow mason jars for The Long Steep. Give it a nice daily shake. It's fine and advisable to pop these jars open every day and sniff around, if for no other reason than because cool things are happening in there and the contents of the jars will smell better and better every day. But resist mixing them or using them for a full 10 days, so that you can have maximum oomph on your bitters when this project is finished.

After 10 full days, grab the jar with the bitter ingredients and the jar with the spices, plus a fine mesh strainer or a coffee filter or some cheese cloth. You are going to strain the bitter booze and the spice booze into the jar with the citrus booze, and then you are going to screw the lid back on there, give it a good shake, and set it back on the shelf for another damn week of your life. This is the price of greatness! Spend the week dreaming up (or looking up) all the tasty cocktails you will make once you have your final, most special ingredient of all bottled and ready.

When the final week of steeping in the big jar is over, your bitters is ready for action. Simply strain it into an old whiskey bottle or a series of tiny dropper bottles or, hell, a 24-ounce soda bottle. I went the extra mile and got some fancy bar bottles with little dasher tips, so my bitters looks extremely tempting sitting on a shelf in my dining room. Behold!

My bitters, looking fancy as hell.
Look at this fancy stuff.
Look at this fancy stuff. Chris Thompson

But we did not make bitters so that we could look at it in ornate little bottles. We made it so we can punch up a dang cocktail! First things first, you must dash some onto a spoon or dip a chopstick down in there or whatever, and taste it straight. Bitter as hell! Yes. Sorry. It's extremely fucking bitter. But also strongly, pleasantly citrus-y, with unmistakable spicy stuff going on underneath, and though your mouth is recoiling from the intense gentian bitterness, there can be no doubt that a dash or two of this in, say, a Boulevardier, or a Manhattan, or a Negroni, or even an Aperol spritz, will jazz it up into something lively and special. Try just two fingers of good rye, a splash of water or club soda, and several big dashes of your homemade bitters. Delightful! Genuinely an excellent beverage for sipping your way to deep inebriation, the better to remember happier times. Get going.

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