Bitters for me were somewhat of a mystery for a long time, most likely due to the fact that I’d not matured enough to appreciate the finer things in life. Even now, if you ask my wife, the maturity question would still be answered as a “work in progress.” Despite all odds however, my taste has evolved, and I now very much appreciate things like bitters with my elevated palate having long left the world of Red Dog beer and "punch" dipped from someone's tub at a party. Below I discuss some of the basics of bitters, how bitters come into the equation with bourbon, and my go-to recipe for bitters.
The Bitter Truth About Bitters
Bitters have been around for a hot minute, dating back to 1824 when Dr. Johann Siegert developed them as a medical remedy for stomach issues. Fast forward to 1870 and Dr. Siegerts sons in Trinidad established bitters as an indispensable ingredient in cocktails and food. Bitters now come in a myriad of different flavor profiles, but put simply, are a infused spirit that draws on any number of aromatic ingredients such as tree bark, spices, roots, seeds, dried fruit, etc. Because of their flavor-packed punch, bitters are commonly dispensed in very small quantities – drops most often – and are stored in tiny bottles with a dropper attached to the cap in many cases or a dash bottle, one such that only a small amount of liquid can pass through the nozzle at a time.
Bourbon and Bitters
Bitters have a place in the world of bourbon, and it may surprise you that they can really be added to a lot of different bourbon cocktails and even to bourbon neat. In a recent blog post, I called out five bourbon cocktails that should be on everyone’s list of go-to drinks. Three of the five drinks listed in the post use bitters!!! Within the world of bitters and bourbon drinks, the most utilized bitters is Angostura Bitters, a brand with origins in Venezuela. These bitters impart of a spicy flavor with hints of clove and cinnamon. Popular also are orange bitters, which have a tremendous appeal when added to an old fashioned!!! As it relates to adding bitters to a neat pour of bourbon, I’ll delve into that in the next section.
DIY Recipe for Bitters
With a bit of a primer on bitters underfoot, I'd like to introduce the idea of adding bitters to your neat pour of bourbon. I myself was a bit skeptical of the idea...I very much enjoy my bourbon neat, no ice, no nothing...just me, my brown water and a beautiful Bourboneur Glencairn Glass. That said, I had received for Christmas a few years ago some bitters dasher bottles, having in my mind at the time, a plan to embark on making homemade bitters to elevate my craft in my garage bar, but hadn't quite gotten to it. Fast forward a couple years, and I stumbled upon a recipe for "barrel bitters" which promised big, smoky-woodsy notes backed up with a modest bitterness that would enhance any brown spirit. I figured, lets try it...
So one just doesn't decide overnight to make bitters and do it, there's a bunch of randomness that goes into making most any bitters recipe and will take some foresight and planning. If you happen to have some quassia chips just hanging around in your pantry however, good on you...but for 99.99999% of the world, your immediate thought is where the heck do you get these things? The answer for me, Amazon. I'll include links to all the things I used to make this at the bottom for easy reference.
Recipe for Bitters
2 cups oak chips
1 teaspoon dried cut gentian bark
1 teaspoon dried quassia chips
1 teaspoon dried cut wild cherry
1/4 cup dried bitter orange peel
1 vanilla bean, split and halved
1 1/2 cups everclear (or similar grain alcohol)
1 cup bourbon
1 tablespoon honey
Once you have everything in hand, these bitters come together pretty easily. Although you can buy charred or toasted oak chips, I wanted to do this aspect on my own to control the level of char as I didn't want too little or too much and at the end of the day wanted to make these bitters uniquely my own. You'll see below I used a kitchen torch and simply lightly went over the spread out chips - I did this multiple times, pulling the chips into a central pile after each go around to spread them back out and ensure I was getting good spatial coverage of char across all sides of the chips. Make sure to do this outside where you have good ventilation and plan to have a spray bottle or water source nearby just in case you go a bit too heavy on the charring and ignite some of the chips.
Making the Magic
If you've now got all your ingredients and have prepped the wood chips, and cut up the vanilla bean you're ready to go - I used a quart sized mason jar and threw it all together in there. There is no rhyme or reason to how you combine the recipe as you're just going to mix the hell out of it once you get it all put in so throw it together and put a lid on it. Shake it up real good and plan to come back to it each day and give it another good shake. You'll do this for about four or five days as the alcohol draws out the flavors of all the additives in the jar.
Barrel Bitters Bottling Bonanza (try to say that fast three times)
When you're ready to bottle your bitters, there's a handful of simple steps that you'll go through to get the final product. First you'll start by taking a fine mesh coffee basket and pour out the liquid into a large measuring cup, attempting to keep most of the solids in the jar. The resulting liquid will then sit for about an hour or so to let the sediment settle out. You might not realize it, but there's a fair bit of residual that comes through the first filtering process.
Once settled, take a piece of damp cheesecloth and fit over a funnel. At this point you will slowly and with limited agitation of the liquid, pour said liquid through the cheesecloth and into a jar. As you pour, you'll notice that the bottom contains some sediment: stop pouring as you get down to that portion and discard this sediment laden liquid. You now are left with the "final product" which can be bottled and enjoyed using three to ten drops based on your preference in your neat pour of bourbon.
Want to Make Your Own Barrel Bitters?
If you've read this far, there's a high likelihood that I've piqued your interest as it relates to barrel bitters and what could be a fun experiment to further your journey related to all things bourbon. Included below is everything you'll need to do this, minus the alcohol - I imagine if you found your way to a site called Bourboneur you can likely manage to locate the appropriate liquids to make this happen. Best of luck! If you try our recipe for bitters, let us know what you think by adding your comments to the site or reach out through our social media accounts.
Materials for Making Barrel Bitters
Dasher Bottles for Holding Bitters. Buy the set, you're going to want to make more than one as it's addicting! View all here.
Recipe for Bitters
Gathering ingredients is the hardest part of this recipe for bitters. So I've done the legwork for you. Here's what you need and where to find it:
Everclear (available at your local liquor store)
Bourbon (I used Willet, but feel free to experiment)