Making Cocktail Bitters (Part 1)

Extract for Making Bitters

In an episode in the most recent season of Mad Men, Don Draper orders a drink at a dinner party by asking for something “big and brown.” A dedicated Irish Whiskey, bourbon and rye drinker, I applaud this pithy request. I like nothing more than a glass of the brown stuff, preferably in a nice heavy rocks glass with ice.

However, I also likes me some cocktails, and while my tastes trend towards simple and savory as opposed to complex and sweet, I am definitely not opposed to trying new things. We have a pretty well stocked bar at the studio, although when you get into the realm of fancy cocktails, our options are relatively limited. When making the type of cocktails that I really like, sometimes all it really takes is the addition of some bitters to make a drink’s flavor profile really sing. Unfortunately, behind our bar the only bitters on hand are of the more typical angostura and orange bitters variety. Tasty? Yes. Outside of the box? Not so much.

It is now football season, and since I live in the central time zone, the first games start at noon. This is a touch early (even for me) to start with whiskey, so more likely than not, I will be sipping a bloody mary at kickoff time. I am always looking for ways to make the best bloody mary possible and so I decided that perhaps I could amp up the flavor of my most recent recipe (which I will talk about in the next post) with some bitters.

Celery Extract

Sure, I suppose it is possible to buy any number of craft bitters available on the market today, but where’s the fun in that? I decided to take the plunge and make some bitters myself. Essentially, bitters are a combination of extracts which when combined will give your cocktails that extra little somthin’ somethin. Bitters are made of essentially three elements: the bittering agent, spices, and citrus.

You can buy extracts of just about anything; however, these extracts come in very small bottles and are generally quite expensive. The other alternative is to make them yourself. This turns out to be a surprisingly simple task. When you get right down to it, all you have to do is steep your ingredients in high-proof alcohol in mason jars, and give them a shake every day or so. Dried ingredients like spices and bark take about 10 days, things like citrus take closer to a month.

Extract for Making Bitters
Spice and citrus extracts made from high proof vodka for making cocktail bitters.

The sum result is that my apartment has started looking like a turn-of-the-century apothecary shop. I’ve got bottles of various color liquids and smaller eyedropper bottles (for the final product) all over the place. Here is what I have going at the moment:

Ancho Chili Extract
14oz vodka + 1.5 teaspoons of ancho chili powder

Fenugreek Extract
14oz vodka + 1.5 teaspoons ground fenugreek

Celery Extract
14oz vodka + 4 tablespoons dried celery and 1 tablespoon celery seed

Lime Extract
14oz vodka + the peel of four limes

Quassia Extract
14oz rye whiskey + 3 tablespoons of quassia bark

Gentian Root Extract
14oz rye whiskey + 3 tablespoons of dried gentian root

The quassia and gentian root are my bittering agents. Technically I only need one of these to complete my bitters. Both are recommended for making bitters, but to be perfectly honest I’m not 100% sure how I’m going to compare the two. One of my favorite old-timey sodas is called Moxie, which features gentian root, so since I have a general idea of what that tastes like, I will likely start with that one when mixing up my final bloody mary bitters recipe.

Gentian Root

You will also note that I opted to use rye whiskey for the bitter extracts. Why? Well, because I can. I like rye, and found a couple instances where it was used to make the extracts, and I figured, what the hell. A whiskey flavor in a bloody mary seems reasonable, so why not experiment with something a little bit deeper flavor. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just make another extract using vodka instead.

Filtering Chili Extract

Once your ingredients are adequately steeped in the alcohol, you decant them into clean jars using coffee filters. I found that my Chemex coffee carafe worked perfectly for this. It takes a little time, but that is all relative. The results, so far, are looking pretty good. My citrus extract is gonna stay in the hopper for a few more weeks, at which point I will get cracking on building the perfect bloody mary bitters recipe and I’ll share the results. Until then ….

Click here to read Making Cocktail Bitters (Part 2)

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