I finally completed the straining, bottling, and (most importantly) tasting of my homemade bitters this weekend and am generally pleased with the results. I began the process of making bitters at home back on July, then followed up with recipes a few weeks later. Now for a little more about the process and results.
I made two version of an aromatic bitters — one that included the addition of cherry bark and vanilla beans, and the other which was more or less traditional. I have to admit, I wasn’t wowed by the appearance or flavors of either right off the bat. Both liquids remain a bit cloudy, though I tried a variety of straining methods, including passing them through a Britta Filter (a trick Will found online). And since the flavor of spices in both was more prominent than in commercial bitters, I first wondered if they would be effective in cocktails.
I tried them first alone alongside the other aromatic bitters we have on our bar - Angostura, Peychaud’s, and Fee Brothers. Compared to the commercial versions, mine had a lighter color and a milder taste. I cut down on the amounts of water both recipes suggested, but I think next time I might forgo the added water altogether. Mine were also both drier than the commercial brands. The Cherry Vanilla Bitters was the driest by far and also had the most pronounced bitterness.
Of the commercial brands I tried, mine most resembled Angostura. Peychaud’s has a syrupy smell and taste similar to Campari, while Fee Brothers, though we liked it, had a very pronounced taste of cinnamon. Alone, I preferred the flavor of my straight aromatic House Bitters, but mixed into a Manhattan, the Cherry Vanilla Bitters shone, adding complexity and bite to the cocktail and rendering the Makers Mark we used as a test bourbon a little closer to a rye. The Cherry Vanilla Bitters were my hands down favorite in our test Manhattan, while Angostura and my homemade House Bitters shared second place. For drinking straight with soda water, Fee Brothers or the House Bitters top my list, while think I would prefer the Cherry Vanilla Bitters with ginger ale. I plan to experiment a bit more with both, testing them in rye cocktails as well as with other alcohols and mixers.
More on the methods:
House Bitters (from Robert Hess)
1) This recipe doesn’t specify the amounts of water and sugar. I used about 1 cup water in step 2 of the recipe and then added slightly less than called for in step 8. Instead, I suggest using about 1.5-2 cups water in step two and adding it slowly to taste in step 4.
2) Omit the additional water in step 8, or add a little at a time, tasting carefully.
3) I used about 1/4 cup sugar (step 5) but you may want to add up to about 1/2 cup. When I carmelized the sugar and stirred it into the cool liquid, I had one of those “what did I get myself into” moments common to these kinds of home projects. Rest assured, the sugar, which immediately solidifies in the liquid and onto the spoon, will eventually dissolve.
Cherry Vanilla Bitters (from Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz)
1) Use 1-1.5 cups water in step 3 and add little by little to taste.
2) This recipe doesn’t include sugar, but if you want it to resemble the commercial varieties, you may want to add 1/4-1/2 cup sugar. Carmelize as in the House Bitters recipe and stir into the spice infused water before adding it to the alcohol.
A few tips:
- Invest in a funnel if you don’t have one - some of the liquid invariable gets lost in the various transfers and strainings, and a funnel cuts down on the spillage and makes straining easier.
- Taste carefully as you add the sugar and water, you may want less than the recipes call for.
- I used wire mesh and cheesecloth to strain, followed by passing the liquid several times through a Britta filter. The cheesecloth is good for removing the solids and squeezing out any remaining liquid, but doesn’t remove the smaller particles that make the liquid cloudy. It might be worth trying a coffee filter or cheese/butter muslin if you can find it.
- To strain, line a funnel with a coffee filter or muslin, and lay cheesecloth over it. Wrap solids in cheesecloth and squeeze out any remaining liquid.
(Note - I reduced both recipes significantly and the amounts above are for the smaller batches I made. If you make a full size batch, revise accordingly.)