Oh hey Crockheads, long time no see! If there’s one way to get back in the saddle it’s with some liquid courage. Coming at you now, award-winning Food and Wine champion bartender of Charleston, SC………….Kyle DeGoyler!!!!!!!!!
“With the latest edition of Friday Feature we are literally going to shake things up. Instead of food, we are going to be talking cocktails. Specifically, we are going to be talking about bitters, what they are, how you can make them yourself and how to apply them to cocktail mixing and even cooking.
What are bitters? The question is as common at my bar as (What’s a grit?) is to our servers. My bartenders and I look forward to the question as I have set the bar up to encourage the conversation on a nightly basis. Our front rail is a neatly lined barricade of 20-30 different apothecary looking bottles, each adorned with a dasher top or dropper to properly distribute the unique and often misunderstood potions inside. The bottles do their job and catch many of our guests’ eyes as they belly up. The back bar-besides the selection of spirits, has numerous books that we dive into when in doubt or searching for the perfect recipe when the time calls. One of the books, Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons is what I consider to be the Holy Grail for any would-be bitters maker. Mr. Parson details everything you need to know about making bitters, from history, tools, ingredients and recipes.
Back to the question. What are bitters?
Bitters are typically a combination of dried roots, barks, herbs, fruit and vegetables and spices that are steeped in a very high proof alcohol for a long period of time, then strained, mixed and sweetened. Creating a very intensely flavorful concoction that keeps almost indefinitely and is indispensable behind the bar.
Bitters first gained prominence during the post-civil war era by the peddling of “snake oil salesmen” who pawned these concoctions off as cure-alls and patented medicines. The reason this was possible is because many of the primary bittering agents have positive qualities like cinchona bark, which is prominent in quinine of tonic water, helping with nausea. Even today, a few dashes of bitters in soda or ginger ale is what I swear by to help with indigestion.
My favorite bitters flavor to make has to be Coffee. This is a flavor that isn’t as widely available as others on the market and after lots of trial and error, I have worked out a consistent recipe. When making cocktails with bitters, one important to remember is that bitters to a bartender are like salt and pepper to a chef. They are not used to be the main flavor but they are there to enhance, round out and bring forward the flavors that are already present.
2 C Bacardi 151 (you can use any alcohol of at least 100 proof)
1 ½ C coffee beans (cracked with mortar and pestle)
1/3 C roasted cacao nibs
1 tsp cloves
3 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick (cracked)
1 TBS wormwood
½ TBS gentian root
3 TBS demerara sugar syrup
3-4 C H2O
Combine all ingredients except syrup and water in a mason jar, cover with high proof alcohol and seal well. Shake like crazy and store in a dark cupboard or somewhere away from light. Shake the jar every day for three weeks. I have found light to be my biggest culprit when spoiling good bitters.
After three weeks, open the jar and strain your liquid through cheesecloth into another jar. Feel free to strain multiple times to ensure you are getting all of the tiny particles. Squeeze your solids tight to get all of the alcohol that you can, then seal your alcohol solution and put it aside.
Next, place your solids in a pot and pour just enough water (3-4 cups) to cover everything entirely. Bring them to a quick boil and then gently simmer them for about 10 minutes, extracting all of the flavors into your water. Take off heat and allow to cool before adding everything, solids and all into a second mason jar. With this step I like to sterilize the Mason jar with some alcohol before I pour, as this solution will not have the alcohol content of the first and you don’t want bacteria ruining a month long project.
Some recipes call for this second solution to sit for up to a week. I have found that 3-5 days is sufficient, if you let it go too long this can turn funky and chunky. Again, shake this jar daily until your last step.
After 3-5 days, open your second jar and strain your solids out one more time. This time, discard them, we have from them everything we need. Repeat your strain until you are happy with the consistency. Then combine your water and your alcohol solution from the first mason jar. To this jar we will add our sweetener. I prefer the demerara with my coffee bitters and you can adjust your sweetening agent according to the flavors you want to put on display. For example, with Chocolate and Aromatic bitters, I prefer Muscovado sugar which has a higher molasses content reminiscent of raisins and black currants. For Citrus Thyme bitters, I use a honey syrup. Once our sweetener is in, we shake the jar until our arms are sore, ensuring that all of the sugar has been incorporated.
Finally…nope we are still not done. Let this jar rest for 3 more days, allowing any remaining sediment or floaters to separate. After 3 days, skim the surface for any would be floaters and decant your bitters into individual bottles. These bitters will keep indefinitely but are best used within a year.
Even if you have executed this perfectly, you may still notice separation at the bottom of your bottles. This is entire naturally just like a blood mary mix. Simply give a shake before you pour.
Now for using your bitters. The most common application of bitters that I have found is the classic Manhattan cocktail. The original recipe calls for 2 oz. of Rye or Bourbon, 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth and 2-3 dashes of aromatic (typically Angostura) bitters, stirred with ice, strained and garnished with a cherry or lemon peel. As for the coffee bitters, at Poogan’s Porch I have a drink called the Man of the House in which we use 2 oz. of Chattanooga Tennessee Whiskey, 1 oz. Dolin Sweet Vermouth and 3 dashes of coffee bitters, stirred, strained over a large cube and garnished with a brandied cherry.”
MIND BLOWN! Mixology=Science Class. We had a such an informative night’s lesson at Kyle and Jen’s house and I learned a whole new side of the drink world. Who knew all of this knowledge and specific techniques went into making a cocktail. Now I know I like my Manhattans with aromatic and lavender bitters and egg whites, shaken. THANKS KYLE!