You can probably tell that when I cook, and a lot of the stuff I write about in this blog tends to have a certain focus. I like the do-it-yourself type recipes. I guess you could call it a hobby of sorts. Cooking, curing, smoking, fermenting and so much more. I like to think that it wasn’t that long ago that we all did these things in our home. We would butcher a whole animal for example, and then cut it up, making sure not to waste anything, and find ways to make it last longer and taste better, not only today, but tomorrow.
Same went for fermentation. Pickled vegetables, bread, even cider, beer and ultimately spirits are part of getting food to last longer, and hopefully taste good.
I have written on making your own bacon, pancetta, jerky and many other cured meats as well as basic pickling to make your cheese plate or burger taste a little better. I have also messed around with making hard cider, beer, and around Christmas time have made several liqueurs including eggnog, lemoncello, and now Irish cream. There have been batches of ginger beer, Kahlua, and homemade tonic. There have been blowouts and blow ups (including Loch and I recently with some hard cider – exploded all over patio!), and it was a lot of fun, kept my mind going and certainly, in addition to cooking and writing, is probably my best creative outlet.
The last two years, I added to this list of hobbies. This DIY obsession. I have made several batches of homemade bitters.
Bitters and Some Definition
Originally serving as the cure-all (claims of healing indigestion, headaches, stomach cramps and constipation), you could say it was the original “snake oil.” I am not a doctor but I can see how bitters could be used to help with some basic illnesses much like your grandmother may have give you some Coke, ginger ale, or even a shot of whiskey to help too.
Today, much like in the 1700’s, bitters, used in cocktails, are a combination of high proof alcohol and the infusion of roots, barks, fruit peel, spice, herbs, flowers and other botanicals. Steeped for weeks at a time, the grain spirit draws out the flavors and bitter components out of the raw ingredients giving it distinct taste and when mixed in cocktails, the right balance to counteract the sweet.
The definition of cocktail as we now know it, is said to have first appeared in a Federalist newspaper in 1806 when the editor, responding to a reader’s letter about a previous article using the word “cock-tail” to describe a drink served to get voters ready in a political rally, wrote, “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters – it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.”
Today most people consider a cocktail to be ANYTHING with booze and anything else added to it. The purists no better. A true cocktail is simply: spirit, sugar, water, and bitters.
Bitterness as a flavor (salt, sweet, etc.) is hard-wired in our taste-buds as a signal to our brain that something bad, possibly toxic, may be on its way. Obviously not in all forms as it is the bitterness in chocolate and coffee, and certain greens and herbs (radicchio being of one my favorites) that we actually like, even sometimes crave. So not all bitterness is bad (although if your heart is bitter toward someone else in your life…well that is something else entirely).
Cocktail bitters are typically used by adding “dashes” to your chosen beverage, usually 3-5 dashes for example, in an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, make the drink the legends that they are, otherwise both of these iconic beverages would be WAY TOO SWEET and generally unpalpable.
There are bitter beverages too. Drinks like Campari (Negroni), Fernet, Amaro, and Jagermeister, that are designed to sip, usually before or after dinner. You probably don’t want to sip on 2 ounces of Angostura for example, but you sure do want it in your Old Fashioned!
The two most familiar, if not most popular, brands of bitters are Angostura and Peychaud’s. In fact is said these are the only two that survived prohibition. Angostura with their goofy over-sized label and yellow cap have been in every bar in the US if not the world since the late 1800’s. Peychaud’s, the Orleans bitter, has made the Sazerac one of the world’s greatest cocktails for over 100 years. Use it anywhere you would use bitters, but for sure if you are making sazeracs for your home happy hour.
Bitters Survival, then Revival
As there has been a whiskey renaissance, a bitters revival also has happened, especially in the past 15 or so years. Pre-prohibition, there were 100’s of different bitters brands, whittled down to two, and stayed that way until the 1950’s where Fee Bros introduced their now well-recognized (and delicious) citrus bitters. Now, in 2019, there are dozens and dozens of commercial brands again, not to mention all of the hobby/bar/home batch enthusiasts (like me) who have not only come to appreciate the history, but have now become obsessed with collecting, and in the case of the home-maker, searching far and wide for ingredients to give their bottles a uniqueness in their home liquor cabinet.
My Personal Bitters Project
I don’t know exactly when I personally got excited about making my own bitters, but it certainly comes out of the aforementioned passion to do more things myself. We would love to grow more, hunt more, forage more, and create more in our home. I think we do a pretty good job now, but we have more things we feel we can do to live a little less on the system, and more on our own. Me making my own bitters is part of that.
Believe it or not I made 3 batches my first round. A “house” bitter that was supposed to be like Angostura (it wasn’t), a citrus (lacked some depth), and then something that gave me great hope, an apple.
We got some apples from the farm we go to in Carnation (organic, etc.) and I am not exactly sure what it was, but the flavor was the deepest, reddest (if that is possible) apple bitterness I have ever experienced. It is simply delightful and as I joke to anyone that will listen, something the founding fathers would have wanted.
My next three batches were different and something that I am certainly proud of. I made a deeper, more citrusy bitters round two, a coffee pecan that I made with bourbon and a friend of mine’s espresso roast and lastly, I made a batch of bitters that were a homage to my heritage. I made an “Irish House” bitters using my favorite Irish Whiskey, Tullamore Dew, and many different botanicals. I don’t think this is very common, but boy it was fun and has a very distinct taste, especially when mixed with soda by itself, or in an Old Fashioned. Like a good Irishman, it plays well with others.
I expect to keep going. Why? Partly because I have to, but mostly because it is fun and that is why you should try too, or at least find people (or a store) that has different bitters’ for you to try. There is something great going on in this world and you should join!
If you want to try some of mine, you can buy it through our little company store, Blacksmith Trading Company!