Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bitters Makes it Better, part I

Bloody hell, another cocktail geek going on about Bitters, you say?
Why not? Historically, bitters were the ingredient that distinguished the original ‘cocktail’ & ‘fancy cocktail’ classes of drinks from all the other varieties. Even today, the subtle alkaloid role which bitters play in so many of the best libations cannot (& frankly should not) be disputed - if you remain unconvinced, try a Pisco Sour, Sazerac or Queen's Park Swizzle without them…

For those that require no such convincing (or have already been convinced), let's talk for a bit about constructing your own unique potables. But, you say, surely with so many companies producing relatively rare or hard-to-find bitters, why would anyone need or want to? True, while years ago the only bitters to be found in most parts of the world were the noble pedigrees of Angostura & Peychaud’s, now we have a veritable pile from which to select - Regan's Orange #6, Herme’s , the Bitter Truth, Fee Brother's & the (much-anticipated) Bittermen’s lines to name just a few.

However, a large part of the interactions a given bitters have within a cocktail are a direct result of what ingredients compose the bitters in question. Likewise, while we have many commercially-available brands of the stuff and while many of them are fantastic in their own ways - occasionally a given bitters just fails to satisfy the discerning palate, to say nothing of adding just the right bit of fine-tuning to that new cocktail you've just come up with.

Perhaps an example: I happen to think the Fee’s company is great, and am thankful that they have endured many lean years to bring us the fabulous product lines, bitters & otherwise, they offer. Yet certain items in their portfolio, such as their Lemon Bitters, leave something to be desired – Fee’s Lemon is just too potable. Despite its pleasant overall flavor - rich with lemon & lemongrass notes - it is almost overwhelmingly sweet without the sufficiently-bitter or additional notes of complexity which cause the flavor(s) of the cocktail into which they are dashed to shine.

Having found the problem, let’s take a step towards a solution. Bitters recipes can be tricky, yet not impossible, to find. A number of very old cocktail books & receipts compilations, Jerry Thomas’s 1862 How to Mix Drinks being one of the best, often contain recipes for them. A word of caution on this route though - be careful with the more ancient texts as certain ingredients (Virginia Snakeroot for instance) which they call for are now known to be harmful or toxic.

If your home library doesn’t include such treasures, the Internet can also yield (for free, no less!) some excellent processes as well, often with more modern ingredient considerations taken into account. I like to use many of the established recipes as reference points – modifying them as necessary to suit the variety of bitters I plan on making. The key to making bitters is remembering that the whole affair is really just a lengthy infusion (or maceration) of herbs, fruit, or other flavoring ingredients in a strong alcohol base, which is then diluted slightly - really not so different from the innumerable spirit (often vodka) infusions one can’t avoid hearing about these days.

Much as with more-consumable infusions (& really any culinary creation), the quality of the ingredients is very important - the herbs in your bitters for example, while most often dried, should be as "fresh" as you can get them - i.e. avoid using that ten-year old bottle of cinnamon sticks you found at the back of the cabinet. In fact, throw those away anyway...

So, is there ever going to be a recipe amidst these ramblings? Sure, sure – if you’ll recall my problem with Fee’s Lemon – take a glance at my Jamaican rum-based solution (©):

Spiced Lemon Bitters #1

10 oz. dried Lemon peel, minced finely
1½ Teaspoons Corriander Seeds
1 Teaspoon Cardamom Seeds, removed from pods
½ Teaspoon Carraway Seeds
½ Teaspoon Quassia Bark
¼ Teaspoon Gentian
¼ Teaspoon dried Lavender
¼ Teaspoon (Ceylon) Cinnamon
⅛ Teaspoon Lemon Zest
4 whole Cardamom pods, gently bruised
1 whole Star Anise
3 whole Black Peppercorns
3 whole White Peppercorns
½ whole Bay (Laurel) Leaf
2 Cups J. Wray & Nephew 126º Rum

1. Place the listed ingredients in a clean container. Add Rum and Water, pushing the ingredients down so that they are covered by the liquid. Seal the jar & shake vigorously every day for twelve days.
2. Strain the alcohol from the dry ingredients by your preferred method (coffee filter, cheesecloth &c). Squeeze the filtered ingredients tightly to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Place the dry ingredients into a strong bowl or mortar, reserve the alcohol mixture in a clean container & seal tightly.
3. Muddle the dry ingredients with a pestle or muddler until the seeds are broken & the other ingredients are well-bruised.
4. Place the dry ingredients into a non-reactive saucepan & cover with 3 Cups of Water. Bring to a boil over a medium heat, cover & reduce the heat to simmer for about 10 minutes. Allow time to cool, covered. (about 40 minutes).
5. Place the (formerly) dry ingredients & Water mixture in a clean container, seal and leave for seven days, shaking vigorously each day.
6. Strain the Water-mixture from the dry ingredients by your preferred method (coffee filter, cheesecloth &c), discarding the dry ingredients. Add the Water-mixture to the Alcohol-mixture.
7. Allow to stand for an additional seven days, straining liquid by preferred method from any sediment (there will be very little).
8. Allow to stand for seven more days, straining liquid by preferred method from any sediment (there will be even less this time), then bottle & use/store/brag to your friends about what you've made.

Let me know if anyone gives this (or any other bitters of their own devising) a whirl...
Cheers & Enjoy!


Anonymous said...

I've always been unimpressed by the Fee lemon bitters too. The Bitter Truth do a better lemon bitters, which offer more complexity. However, I've never really found any drinks to make much use of them. What cocktails do you use your lemon bitters in?

Chris "Rookie" Stanley said...

I'm with you on that one - though the Bitter Truth's Lemon is only (to me at least) mildly more complex. A dash of those together with some Angostura or Peychauds is a bit more to my liking, but doesn't always work in some cocktails.

The Lemon bitters pair brilliantly anywhere Ginger is a constituant, so anything with Ginger Ale, beer, or fresh hits the top of my list (try in a Whiskey Highball). The corriander highlights some interesting notes in bitter-liqueurs like Pimm's or Campari (try in my Highball). A Picon Punch comes out nicely with the addition, as do several Gin-based cocktails (Negroni & Aviation are great). Finally, the Anise notes in the bitters work in tandem with gentle applications of Pernod (fantastic in a Corpse Reviver #2).


Eli said...

A friend of mine (who steered me to your blog) had trouble with the dried lemon peel in this recipe. He found that the peel soaked up all the liquor and then didn't give it back. Have you had this happen before? Do you have any recommendations on how to avoid that?

Chris "Rookie" Stanley said...


Thanks for visiting!

I should clarify that the dried Lemon peel should be freshly-made; i.e. Lemon peel that one places in a low oven briefly or leaves on a sunny windowill for a bit.

Not super dry or completely dehydrated like the sort found in the spice aisle.