Figure out what’s already on the market
Before the most recent cocktail revival, bartenders used to joke that the obligatory bottle of Angostura bitters on every bar was liable to last longer than their marriages. These days, they’re used so liberally that some drink recipes even call for bitters as a base. With a wider array of flavours than potato chips – cranberry, Sriracha, coffee and smoke are just a few of the options available – it’s clear that home bartenders are spoiled for choice. Before steeping your own, research what’s already on the market and take inspiration from the pros: The vast array you’re likely to find is sure to lead to a brain wave.
What does your cocktail need?
“I like to be able to dial in my own flavours,” says Mark Coster, a Toronto wine and spirit agent who got so carried away with his bittersmaking hobby that he launched his own line, Coster’s Prescription Bitters. “ A lot of top bartenders do this when they want to make a cocktail and aren’t getting exactly what they want from their base spirit.” Others develop their own because some commercial brands are inconsistent from batch to batch. “ Variety doesn’t necessarily mean quality,” says Lauren Mote, co-owner of Vancouver’s Bittered Sling Extracts. The takeaway: Focus on your likes and needs and choose your flavours accordingly.
Prepare for a project
Mote warns that, while making bitters is simple in theory, ambitious projects have a habit of getting out of control quickly. “ We never want to deter people, but every single thing that you put under alcohol has 10 times the extraction rate that it has in a tea.” That’s particularly problematic when dealing with the bitter roots and herbs that are sometimes used for flavour. “ When people are playing around with quinine bark (which was used to treat malaria) or tobacco (which is a poison), you’d better do your research first,” advises Mote. “ And always test it on yourself.”
Four steps to a better home bitters
To circumvent store-bought bitters and wade into the borderlineobsessive territory of cocktail artisanship, Mark Coster offers up a safe and simple starter recipe. Begin by dividing a litre of the highestproof vodka available into three Mason jars. Wash and dice 10 ounces of ginger, two stalks of lemongrass and the leaves of six stalks of rosemary, placing each ingredient into its own jar before storing them for a month in a cool, dark place. Filter out the solids with cheesecloth and blend the vodkas to taste. Heat the solids with one cup of sugar and one cup of water and simmer for 10 minutes. Filter again and combine the simple syrup with the infused-vodka blend.