Beer, Wine, and Liquor manhattan

Published on October 10th, 2008 | by Bryan Luukinen

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DIY Aromatic Bitters: Make Amazing Cocktails at Home!

Throwback cocktails are all the rage these days, and drinking at home frees you from $8 drinks and designating a driver. What separates ordinary swill from killer cocktail recipes can be as simple as the addition of aromatic bitters.

If your bitters are made at home, you’ve got an ultimately customizable addition to any good drink. And you can re-use the container, and buy bulk spices. Sustainability in a bottle!

What are aromatic bitters you say? Why, saddle up to the bar and lend an ear. Bitters are indispensable additions to countless cocktails, and you may be familiar with a couple of house calls that beckon for bitters, including the Sazerac, Manhattan, and LLB (lemon, lime and bitters). Thing is, bitters were kind of an ol’ timey thing until a couple of years ago when the cocktail began to stage a bit of a comeback.

Bitters started out as “a tincture of any number of esoteric roots and herbs with an alcohol base“, and became a common addition to many cocktails. One of the first cocktails, the Sazerac, was invented by a Frenchman who popularized the drink in New Orleans. His drugstore, the Pharmacie Peychaud, served up drinks in a coquetier (that’s french for “egg cup”), which is where the name “cocktail” may have come from. Ok, enough history. Let’s drink!

Bitters usually contain some kind of combination of aromatic spices including bark (cinnamon or angostura), citrus peels, berries, seeds, roots or extracts, and sometimes fresh or preserved fruit. They also include alcohol, ranging from Everclear 151 to Campari. So, get your hands on some spices (sustainably-produced would be a good choice; ForesTrade is a prominent supplier that does excellent work with conservation and sustainability).

Ok, once you’ve got all your ingredients, grab a recipe. I’ve reproduced one here from Chow.com, who have an awesome story on their site about bitters, complete with beautiful photos. They’ve also put up recipes for Grapefruit, Cherry Vanilla, Orange, and Sunshine Bitters. I’m getting thirsty.

For Aromatic Bitters, you’ll need:

  • 1 medium lemon
  • 1 (750-milliliter) bottle grain alcohol, such as Everclear 151
  • 40 drops gentian extract (good luck with this one, but you should be able to scare it up at a natural foods store)
  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
  • 1 (1-1/2-inch) piece fresh ginger, cut in half
  • 4 whole allspice berries
  • 4 whole cloves

Peel the lemon for its zest, and throw everything in a jar with a tight lid. Let ‘er steep for a couple of weeks, turning the mixture every other day to keep things mixed well. Everclear 151 works well in this case, because it takes on the flavors from the fruit and spices, and doesn’t contain many impurities – hence, “Everclear”. If you can’t find Everclear (it’s illegal in some states), get the highest proof booze you can. You won’t be drinking this straight, anyway.

And that’s really all it takes to make an all-star ingredient for classic, delicious cocktails. For me, there’s nothing better than making your own booze, and this is pretty close to it. Plus, your friends won’t believe you made an herbal tonic from scratch that made their Manhattan unbelievable. It’ll be our little secret…

Image credit: Southern Foodways Alliance at flickr under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License





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About the Author

I'm an environmental scientist, food lover, gardener, aspiring farmer, and one helluva cook. I'm passionate about food politics, the environment, rational governments, cooking, food, and life. I live in Corvallis, OR, but I've been lots of places. Most don't get nearly the rain we do here. I think food is one of the most important things in life. We all eat, and therefore we all make an impact on the world with our food choices. We have all gotten too far from our food, and once we get closer, the charade of the industrial food system becomes more apparent. Do not dispair; grow something to eat, choose food that your grandmother could identify as such, and think about where your food comes from. If we all did one of those three, real, good food would be much more plentiful - and the world might be a better place.



2 Responses to DIY Aromatic Bitters: Make Amazing Cocktails at Home!

  1. Christine says:

    Bitters are amazing, ‘old time’ alcohol that has so much goodness infused into it. Most bitters were and still are made by monks in europe- such as Chartreuse and Fernet – and contain _hundreds_ of secret herbs- way beyond the cloves and peppercorns listed here! It is certainly time for a renaissance of bitters.

  2. Carla says:

    Finally a drink that doesn’t take like syrup!

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