Bitterness is one of the nastiest traits in a person, but the flavor version shouldn't have the same bad rap. Bitter foods aren’t things we’re often compelled to eat piles of, like sweet or salty snacks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to love a burst of bitterness here and there. It’s thought that plants evolved to produce bitter flavors as protection against predators such as us hominids.
These bitter compounds have all kinds of medicinal actions in low doses but are often toxic in large amounts. Thus, we evolved a bitter receptor on our tongue to tell us what plants to eat in small portions as food, and simultaneously, what plants to use for medicine. Wouldn’t it be handy, now that sugar and salt are no longer scarce commodities, if our receptors would update to tell us when to stop eating those, too?
What Are Bitters? We’re not exactly sure when, but somewhere along the line humans learned that not only were these plants with bitter compounds medicinal, but also anything that activates the bitter receptor on the tongue will stimulate digestion, promote GI tract health, and support gut-brain balance. Once we discovered alcohol as a tool for extraction and preservation, it became our delivery method of choice and the style of alcoholic extracts called “bitters” was born.
Bitters, currently defined by Wikipedia as “a usually alcoholic solution of bitter and often aromatic plant products used especially in preparing mixed drinks or as a mild tonic,” were historically swallowed as a shot in the morning or around mealtime-until cocktails came onto the scene in the early 1800s. The first recorded cocktail had only four defining ingredients: spirit, water, sugar, and bitters. It quickly became our favorite way to administer bitters.
The repertoire of cocktails has obviously expanded into a whole universe since its humble, four-ingredient beginning, but bitters have remained a keystone of the well-stocked bar. For a long time, there were only a handful of patented and trusted makers like Peychaud’s and Angostura. But as of late, in step with the cultural leaning toward local food and small business, we’re seeing lots of small-batch bitters around town, and for good reason–they’re easy to make and there are infinite flavors to be found. These are the same reasons why you should make your own with ingredients you grew or foraged.
How to Make Bitters There are variables in ingredients, blending, and extraction time, but a few rules of thumb keep us within bitters boundaries. The general composition is 100-proof neutral spirit (Everclear or vodka), bitter botanicals, and aromatic botanicals. The ratio of these components is generally 2:1 liquid to solid if you’re using fresh plant material and 4:1 if you’re using dried. Of the total solids, at least 50% should be bitter botanicals.
You can find bitter and aromatic botanicals in the wild, the garden, or the grocery store. You probably have the most popular ingredients already in your spice rack or growing in your neighborhood. Here are just a few of many.
Bittering Botanicals and Agents: Angelica root, artichoke leaf, barberry root, black walnut leaf, burdock root, boneset, cinchona bark, chicory root, citrus peel, conifer resin or needles, dandelion root, devil’s club root, gentian root, horehound, licorice root, mugwort, Oregon grape root, reishi mushroom, sumac, and quassia bark.
Aromatic Botanicals and Agents: Allspice, bay leaves, bergamot, birch, black trumpet mushrooms, caraway, cardamom, chamomile, chanterelle mushrooms, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, cacao beans, coffee beans, coriander, fennel, ginger, goldenrod, Japanese knotweed, juniper berries, nutmeg, oxeye daisy, star anise, vanilla beans, hops, lavender, mint, pineappleweed, rose, rosemary, sage, sorrel, spicebush, sweet cicely, sweetfern, sweet gale, thyme, turmeric, wintergreen, yarrow, dried fruit, and toasted nuts,
Additional Ingredients: Light sweetening with honey, maple syrup, molasses, or sugar is optional, as is diluting with water, as long as the final product is between 37 and 45% alcohol by volume.
Some people do single ingredient extractions and then blend them afterward, while others combine all of their chosen ingredients to extract together. Single extractions will give you a better idea of what the flavor of each plant is and you’ll have the option to mix and match flavors into multiple blends, which is fun. You can also extract different ingredients for different lengths of time this way, which I’ve found helpful. If you combine ingredients to extract together, you save space but that’s about it. For beginners, I recommend starting with small jars (4 ounces) of single-ingredient extract. Over time, as you find combinations that you love, it then makes sense to build blended extracts.
Combine your chosen botanicals and your spirit in a labeled jar with a lid, and store on a shelf out of direct light for two weeks, shaking and tasting often. Some ingredients will be done overnight, while others take weeks–it’s a taste-test kind of process. The best way to taste the full flavor is to squirt a dropperful into a glass of plain or sparkling water. When you taste a good representation of the plant, strain out the solids.
Once all of your extracts are done comes the fun part: blending. Play around with all of your possible flavor combinations by sampling in sparkling water. Once you find a blend you love, combine them into dropper bottles and label. I recommend trying your favorites straight up, sweetened, and diluted because those subtle changes can make a big difference. Let the bottles rest for a week or more to allow the flavors to really marry and then get down to the nitty-gritty of creating your own signature cocktail.
How to Use Bitters I treat bitters like the salt of the cocktail world. They sharpen, brighten, and deepen so many drinks but they’re not exclusive to alcohol. My favorite way to use bitters is actually in order to drink less alcohol. I love the ritual of an evening cocktail, so in times when I’m cutting back on consumption a bitters and soda is just the thing to scratch the itch of having something special to sip at the end of the day.
I also love a dropperful in hot tea after a meal for a low ABV hot toddy, and let’s not forget about bitters' original purpose, which it still serves: digestion. A dropperful in plain water, sparkling water, ginger beer, kombucha, or tea all make for really fun flavor pairings and keep your gut functioning optimally.
Aside from beverages, bitters can also be used in place of vanilla extract. They make for really unique baked goods, fruit pies, pastries, and poaching liquids. You can always go old school too and just take a shot, straight up. But a few dashes in my favorite cocktail, an old fashioned, is a tried-and-true pairing.