Monday, November 5, 2012

DIY Bitters: Part I

I have slowly been building a little bar cabinet of sorts over the past couple years, and while we have most of the basic liquors needed to make most mixed drinks, we do not have any bitters. Bitters are very concentrated liquor flavorings that are added to cocktails to give them deeper and more complex flavors. They used to be used as medicinal tonics back in the day, but slowly became more a part of a bartender's cabinet than a doctor's. I didn't want to spend a lot of money on a large set, and I was very interested in making my own so that I could have more control over the types of bitters I had, so I did some internet research and found a very detailed article about making bitters here from a Lexington newspaper.

Essentially, bitters contain three flavor components: a dried bitter root or bark, dried fruits or vegetables, and dried spices or herbs. I got my bitter root and bark ingredients from Mountain Rose Herbs, which I would recommend since you can get all three types of bitters used in this recipe from them and they're very affordable. The rest of the ingredients can be purchased at normal grocery stores or made at home by drying out various sliced fruits or vegetables on a baking sheet in the oven at very low heat.

There are two main steps to making bitters. The first step is to extract the flavors out of your ingredients by soaking them in a high proof vodka. This is the step I go over in this post, but you can skip this step for some of the ingredients by buying actual extracts of them in the baking isle at most markets, like lemon extract or orange extract. You can also find ready-made extracts for some of the bitters and many, many types of herbs at Mountain Rose Herbs' website. The extraction process takes about 1 week for dried bitter roots/bark and dried herbs and spices, and about 4 weeks for dried fruits and dried vegetables. The second step, which I will go over in another post, is to experiment with combining different extracts to create your mix of bitters. For example, one of the bitters I am going to try to make will be geared towards complimenting Bloody Marys, and it will contain a mix of celery extract, chile extract, and fenugreek extract. This is where the process will get creative, so have fun and feel free to come up with a bitter blend that compliments your specific tastes.

I am making these for myself and Jeremy, but I think they would make great Christmas gifts, or even bridesmaid or groomsmen gifts. You could make each person their own custom bitter made up of flavors that you know the person enjoys, or make one with flavors that would compliment their favorite cocktail.

I will post Part II in another couple weeks (click here for Part II), in the meantime you can start getting your extracts a-brewing!

*Note* These are just the ingredients I used to make the flavors I enjoy, do not feel limited by them. Feel free to use similar measurements of whatever dried herbs, spices, dried fruits, and dried vegetables you like!


48 ounces of Vodka, 100 to 140 proof (I used 100 proof because that was the highest I could find) 
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Gentian Root
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Orris Root
1/2 Teaspoon Quassia Bark
1 Dried Date, pit removed and chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
5 Thinly Sliced Dried Apple Slices
1 Stalk of Celery, thinly sliced and dried
1 Teaspoon Finely Grated Lime Zest, dried
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon (or 1 stick)
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Ancho Chile Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Fenugreek
1/2 Teaspoon Cardamom Pods
(12) 4 Ounce Mason Jars, sterilized (these are the ones I bought)
(12) 4 Ounce Brown Glass Bottles with Dropper Lids (these are the ones I bought, and you won't need these until Part II)

Place each of your ingredients in its own sterilized mason jar, add vodka until there is only 1/4 inch of headspace left at the top of the jar. Seal it tightly with its lid and immediately label the top of the jar with the ingredient that is inside of it and the date that the extraction will be complete (7-10 days for dried bark, dried roots, dried spices, and dried herbs; 21-28 days for dried fruits and vegetables.)

Once the extraction process is complete, you will need to filter out the items whose flavor you have just extracted. If you are filtering out ground herbs and spices, use a rubber band to fasten 2 sheets of a very clean piece of cheesecloth over an empty sterilized mason jar. If you are filtering out whole objects like dried fruits, vegetables, bark, and seed pods, you can just use a clean metal sieve. If you are using cheesecloth, pull some extra fabric out from under the rubber band so you can create a little bowl in the jar. Empty your extract into the jar, remove your straining equipment, discard the items that have been filtered out, and pour the liquid back into its original 4 ounce mason jar container. Seal tightly and set aside until all your extractions are complete. If you are using only one jar to strain out all the extracts, make sure you rinse out the jar and then place the jar in a hot water bath for 5 minutes between straining sessions to keep it clean, sterile, and free of the flavors of the other extracts.

Once all your extracts are ready, continue to Part II.


  1. So many little jars with so many flavours! Delightful. Looking forward to part 2.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you love! I am a fan of them as well, can't wait to recycle them into tiny jam jars, too cute!

  3. great post...
    Vinegar or glycerine for non alcohol options?

    1. I've never heard of ingesting glycerin before, so I would go with vinegar if your looking for a nice flavor-absorber. But since the base is vinegar your bitters will probably be much "tangier" and more sour than bitters made with vodka, which tends to be more flavorless.

    2. Vegetable glycerin is commonly used to make extractions. It is sweet and goes well with bitter formulas. I use "heritage products" and it's great :)

  4. EEK! Thank you for posting this. My husband is really into mixing drinks lately and has started using bitters. I'm going to make these for him for Christmas! Can't wait for part 2. Beautiful photography too.

    1. Thank you :) And he will love these then! Let me know how they come out for you and what fun flavor combinations you try, would love to get ideas for a next batch.

  5. What lovely photos! I've made a number of batches of bitters following the recipes in BTP's Bitters book, which involve combining all of the ingredients together into one large batch rather than making individual tinctures. I've been thinking about giving this method a try though (especially since I'd like to diverge from following recipes), as it's an excellent way to experiment with various flavoring/bittering combinations without committing to a large batch.

    (Also, I noticed another reader asking about using alcohol alternatives for extraction. Glycerine can be used, as long as it's food-grade vegetable glycerine. The extraction process takes a bit longer [although I've heard of people speeding up the process by heating the jars in a crockpot filled with water on the lowest possible setting, for anywhere from several hours to several days]. Glycerine also has a bit of a sweet taste to it, which can be a little off-putting when combined with lighter, fruitier flavors. [All of the Fee Brothers' bitters are made with a glycerine, and I've found that I can't really detect it in their more aromatic flavors, but their rhubarb bitters taste like cough syrup to me.])

    Wow, sorry, I didn't mean to write a novel-length comment... (I got really into bitters last year and kind of geeked out over the whole process. Then I did a post on it, and people asked me a lot of questions I didn't know the answers to, so I did even more research. Now my brain is filled with information that 95% of the people I know don't have any interest in listening to!) I'm looking forward to seeing what you create with all of these. :)

    1. Haha, I love all this information, it is so helpful!! Thank you!! It is good to know that they can be made sans-alcohol with something less sour than vinegar. I need to find some edible glycerin and make some bitters with those as well, it would be nice to add to teas and lemonades without having to worry about getting a bit tipsy.

      Also, I love your blog! I'm especially intrigued by your Shrub post, I have always wanted to try making one but never have. You have inspired me to do so. I am reading through your bitters post now, so much information and so interesting! I feel compelled to pick up a copy of "Bitters" now, I LOVE reading non-fiction books about foods and beverages.

    2. Thank you, Eva! I cannot recommend shrubs enough. They're tangy like nothing else, and so good in cocktails. (There are gallons in my pantry already, and I can't stop making them.)

      If you pick up a copy of Bitters, I highly recommend grabbing Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails along with it (if you haven't read that one already). There are so many amazing drinks in there, and Ted Haigh does a great job of giving the history of each one. I read through it in one sitting! (It's not very big, so that's not really that impressive...but still...) :)

    3. There is a pomegranate tree that is loaded with pomegranates near the off-ramp by my house, I think I am going to pick some tonight and make a shrub this weekend!

      And it is too funny that you mention that book! I was looking at the Bitters book on amazon after you mentioned it and saw that listed in the "if you like this, you might like..." window. Read the summary and added it to my amazon wishlist haha. It will be going in the cart now :) I love getting non-fiction food book recommendations, if you ever have any more please feel free to send them my way!

    4. Also, I feel bad getting all these great recommendations and not contributing anything haha. If you like non-fiction food you might have already read Salt by Mark Kurlanksy, (SUCH a great book!), but he has written a lot of other books about various foods, Cod was another one of my favorites of his, The Big Oyster was a really good one too :)

    5. Oh man, I bet a pomegranate shrub will be amazing! (Not going to lie, the idea of being able to pick pomegranates right from the tree kind of makes me want to cry as I type this from my desk in 39° Vermont, currently the land of kale and beets.)

      I've had Salt on my wishlist for a while now, but yet to actually buy it — I'll definitely pick that one up in my next round of book purchases! (I've also been eying two Tom Standage books for a while now: An Edible History of Humanity and A History of the World in 6 Glasses.) Another book you might be interested in is Fix the Pumps by Darcy O'Neil. He chronicles the history of the soda fountain, as it rose from apothecaries, evolved, and then faded away. The latter half of the book is filled with recipes for various things, from elixirs to shakes to phosphates to bitters. It's a very fascinating read on what is kind of a lost art today. (It definitely made me dream of opening an apothecary-esque soda fountain/bar business one day!)

      Also, although her work is a little bit more personal and less historical, M.F.K. Fisher is one of my favorite food writers. I don't even really know what to say about her, other than I was hooked after only reading the first few paragraphs of How to Cook a Wolf. (Which a good friend of mine mailed to me over a year ago with the note that said something to the effect of, "This woman reminds me a lot of you. If you haven't read her already, you should.") The Art of Eating is a great collection of her various works — I highly recommend it! :)

    6. Haha! Well at least kale & beets are tasty in their own right :) I actually have a History of the World in 6 Glasses but have been lame and haven't read it yet (still working on getting through David McCullough's John Adams bio which is 600 very large pages long), his other book sounds interesting too! And oh my goodness, The Art of Eating sounds exactly like my kind of book too, absolutely wonderful!! That is going at the top of my wishlist. So many good food books to buy and read. I'm going to try and catch up on a lot of reading over Thanksgiving weekend, will hopefully have polished off my John Adams bio by then. It is another good one, not at all food-related, but such an interesting and well-written story of his life. If you're about to start a food book and would be at all interested in doing a little food book club, let me know and I would love to get the same book & converse about it! :)

    7. Oooo, I love the idea of a little food book club. I am horribly undisciplined when it comes to finishing books I start (which I blame on the fact that I work with books all day), so it would be wonderful to have some motivation! I'm kind of itching to read A History of the World in Six Glasses now, so I think I'll also grab that one soon as well. Perhaps we could start with that! :)

    8. That sounds perfect! I will start reading that while I'm finishing up Adams's bio. Let's set a date for an email discussion of the first couple chapters, maybe this Sunday? Or should we give ourselves some more time and go for Thanksgiving weekend? (I understand your book exhaustion, I used to speed read and summarize dense business texts for work after college for about a year. It makes reading seem much less enjoyable than it normally is!)

  6. Great pictures an a wonderful post!:)

  7. I was wondering how much coffee and chocolate you used in the vodka for the extract? Thanks

    1. I purchased those extracts ready-made from the store, but if you'd like to make them yourself here's some guides below:

  8. do you have the recipe like this :
    i am from Peru ..greetings good post :)