I want to be like Antoine Peychaud. After finally confronting the realization that I will never live up to the old “Be like Mike commercials”, I lived in a world without a role model and guidance for several years. This void in my life, filled by a perilous journey towards a purposeless end (Masters degree), eventually had to end. So, as of today, I want to be like Antoine. And, no, nothing rhymes with Antoine or Peychaud, so this doesn’t have the same catchy Jordan slogan characteristic – get over it. Man, I sound like some sort of bitter old man; I guess that’s the point. This is a post about bitters after all.
I have long thought of bitters as the salt and pepper of cocktails. While a proportionally small additive to any cocktail, bitters serve the vital role of balancing drink elements and heightening the complexity of cocktails. Ten years ago finding any bitters aside from the traditional Angostura brand was virtually impossible. Today, the bitters market has exploded with everything from Regan’s Orange Bitters to the soon to be released Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters. These are all great options for the cocktail enthusiast, but if you really want to go crazy, you have to start making your own bitters.
The are plenty of articles available online, many from other bloggers, describing how to make your own bitters, but there really isn’t a source of possible basic bitters ingredients. Sure, you can find a recipe calling for Fringe Tree Bark, but what the heck is that anyway? For the record, apparently, it is a type of tree that grows in the Eastern US that when in bloom has beautiful white flowers. Awesome! Let’s chop it down and put it in some bitters with a bunch of other stuff. (Blog loses environmentalist-minded readers.)
The liquor components
All bitters start with a spirit base. When selecting liquor for this bitters project, we wanted to use liquors that are easy to obtain, come at a low price point, and have a high proof. The high proof is the most important part of the liquor selection, as it allows for a longer shelf life and may extract more flavor during the infusion process. Due to the fact that you will never use more than a few drops of the bitters in a cocktail you shouldn’t worry about the high proof throwing of the balance of a drink. In our situation, we opted for three different high proof liquors:
Everclear: This pure grain favorite of frat boys all across the country is perfect for this bitters project. It weighs in at a sensory overloading 190 proof, it doesn’t bring any flavors with it so it will work well with the ingredients we want to stand out.
Gosling’s 151-Proof Black Seal Rum: We had a few options when it came to high proof rum, but we made the call to go with the Gosling’s because we thought that it would add a depth of flavor that you simply can’t get from other high proof rum. We’ll go for distinction any day.
Wild Turkey Rye: This might seem like an unlikely choice, with a lower proof, but we really wanted to use the spiciness of a rye in combination with some of the earthy and bitter components we had at our disposable. The choice to use the Turkey was easy; it is our go-to rye at the bar. Texas doesn’t have the greatest of rye selections, so we are left with a very small amount of options. A few months back we had a very informal, drunken rye tasting and the turkey came up on top; plus, you can’t beat the price point.
The Herbal Components
This is where the list can get a little ridiculous, and it did. We put this list together based off of recipes we found online, and things we thought would just be fun to try. One void we found with many bitters recipes is that while some give good how to advice, none really explain what it is they are using and why. We by no means think this list is all inclusive, as no list should be. But, we think you could use this post as future resource for when you decide to make your own.
Let me preface this with the following statement, “We are not botanists, we do not know about plants or herbs, but we do know how to use the internet, and our taste buds work, so if you are a botanist or a herbologist (is that a word?) and you find any of these statements to be incorrect please let us know and we will remedy the situation.” Actually, that whole chop the tree down comment probably made all of those people leave by now; no real concern there. On to the herbs:
Wormwood: With the recent return of Absinthe to American shores, it seems as if everyone has heard of this herb. Wormwood is a tall woody plant that grows well in dry sunny conditions. While not related, fully grown wormwood plants look like hemp plants. Wormwood was often planted around the edges of other fields because it does a good job of acting like a natural pesticide.
Birch Leaf: Birch leaf, just as the name suggests, is the leaf of a Birch tree. Birch leaf and Birch bark are very traditional herbal medicines that are usually used in teas or paste to treat joint discomfort, warts and lower urinary tract infections. The Birch leaf has a sweet nose and an earthy taste.
Dandelion Leaf and Bark: The Dandelion is a flowering plant that is native to Africa, Asia and Europe. They are about 30 million years old and have been used by humans as a food source for all of recorded history. The dried leaves have a spicy earthy nose; the taste is a mix of fresh soil and grass. The root is chewy and sweet with hints of earthy soil. We use both the root and the leaf because many of the recipes we found only called for dandelion and did not specify which part. If you use the root be careful to not use too much, in its dry state it will soak up a large amount of liquid. So you might lose a large portion of any liquor you mix with it.
Fringe Tree Bark: The fringe tree is a small flowering tree found in the Eastern United States from Tennessee to Pennsylvania. It flowers in the late summer and looks like a cross between a Dogwood and a Magnolia. The bark is the only part of the plant that was used if frontier medicine. It finds its use in bitters because of the lightly bitter oils the bark contains. It is historically used in conjunction with Barberry Root Bark.
Barberry Root Bark: Barberry has been called one of the best medical plants in North America. It was first used by American Indians along the Eastern side of the country. It is used to increase the body’s production of bile and thus help improve liver functions. The flavor is a light bitterness mixed with sweet and spicy notes.
Milk Thistle Seed: As you might expect, Milk Thistle Seed comes from the Milk Thistle plant. The seeds are used to help improve overall body functions because they contain high levels of antioxidants. The seeds are small and black. They have almost no taste, but when infused you can get elements of bitterness from them.
Burdock Root: Burdock is a thistle, which is native to Europe and parts of Asia. Burdock is related to the Artichoke. Cynar anyone? When we talk about Burdock root, we are referring to the taproot of a young burdock plant which can be eaten as a root vegetable. While the use of Burdock in European cuisine has fallen out of popularity, it is still very popular in Asia. When fresh, Burdock is very crisp and has a mild sweet yet pungent flavor. You can most easily find Burdock in its dry form; in this state, it loses some of its crispness but the flavor remains with the addition of a more tannin undertone. Dandelion and Burdock is a popular soft drink in the UK.
Black Walnut Leaf: The Black Walnut is native to Eastern American, with a range that stretches from Ontario in the north, Florida in the south and as far west and Eastern Texas. Generally, the tree is prized for its fruit (Walnuts) or its dark heartwood, which as a history of being poached from public lands. One of the first recorded uses of Plant DNA testing was used to convict a poacher in East Texas. The leaf is much cheaper to buy and you wouldn’t find yourself in jail for picking it. The oils found in the leaves can be a dark dye that is hard to remove from cloths and hands.
Quassia Wood: This is where the bitter party really starts. Just chew on a piece and you will know what I mean. It is a tree that is native to Jamaica; it is a natural insecticide and has sometimes been used instead of hops when brewing beer. I would guess that we might see more of this as the price of hops continues to rise in the US.
Lavender: Sounds like a strange ingredient to add to bitters; well it is. We’re not sure what the lavender will do but you might find us using it as an aromatic additive. Lavender is an herb which finds itself as a member of the mint family. The plant is native to Europe, Africa, India and the Mediterranean. However, because it is a favorite among American gardeners for both is aroma and natural insecticide properties, you might find it growing wild in the US as a local garden escapee. Lavender has found uses as a part of salad dressing, marinades and garnishes. While the flower petals are purple, they turn an eerie green when combined with high proof liquor.
Fennel Seed: Fennel is a special case. It is the only plant that is an herb, a vegetable and a spice. The leaves are a common herb, the bulb is the vegetable and the seeds are the spice. What we’re not forgetting one, are we? Of course the pollen, fennel pollen is one of those few spices that is worth more than liquor, drugs or gold sometimes costing $35 an oz for the good stuff. We use the seed because it is easy to store when dry and carries a lot of flavor.
Citrus: We use 3 types of citrus; lemons, oranges and grapefruits. If we talk about the zest we are referring to the fine zest you get with the use of a micro plane. You use the zest when all you want in the flavor of the oils from the skin. When we talk about peel we are referring to the thin outer peel. Us your twist knife to get long strips that have the zest, the oils and just a little pith. We use the peel when we want to introduce the bitterness that comes from the pith.
Apples: You can use whole dried apples. But we simply micro planes the skin off so that we good we the flavor, color and bitterness without adding bulk or sugar.
Hibiscus Blossoms: Many classic bitters recipes call for the use of dried roses or some other edible flower. Kevin had Hibiscus growing in the backyard so we decided to go with what we had. Hibiscuses grow very well in warm temperate climates all over the world. The flowers are used in teas, as medicines and even as a natural antidandruff shampoo. The bark contains strong fibers that are used in wigs and grasses skirts.
Hops: I could write a book about hops, in fact people have so I will just direct you here for more information.
The spices we used were chosen for one of two reasons. First they are tradition bitters ingredients, second we just really like them.
Cinnamon: This is pretty strait forward, or so you think. Cinnamon is the bark of a cinnamon tree after it has been coppiced (the act of cutting the tree down very close to the ground after it is a few years old, the next season many small shots will have grown on the stump). Ok, now this tree thing is getting out of hand. For the record, we are pretty green people. Cinnamon has a history that is closely tied to war and conquest. In the age before globalization, the spice of grown is only a few places and the trade routes that crossed Europe and Asia were constantly in dispute. It was in fact a disruption in the spice supply to Europe from Asia brought about by the rise of Mamluk Sultans and the Ottoman Empire in the east that forced Europe to find alternate routes to Asia. While this history is all about the cinnamon most conman spices share the same back story.
As the East India Trading Company was becoming powerful they found it easier to grown their own spice instead of importing it. They also began looking for alternatives to spices such as cinnamon. With the discovery of cassia the importation of True Cinnamon almost totally stopped. In fact in American today if you buy ground Cinnamon what you are really getting is ground cassia. Cassia is harder and strong smelling and tasting then True Cinnamon. In fact for this project we went with whole Cassia that is labeled as cinnamon because it is easier to get and more familiar to the American palate.
Coriander: Coriander seeds are those small round little things that look like smooth tan pepper corns. But they are in reality the seeds of the Coriander plant better known to Americans as Cilantro.
Anise: A member of the holy trinity of Absinthe. The Chinese believe that as long as you have a whole perfect star in your home your marriage will be a good one, god forbid the star breaking. Anise is prized as both a garnish and a flavoring, adding a deep black liquorish taste.
Black Peppercorns: We like to use just a little fresh black peppercorns in most spice combinations because they add an extra flavor dynamic.
Cloves: Cloves are a dried flower bud. The name comes from the French clou, a nail, because the bud resembles a short nail. The cloves are picked late in the season when the green flowers have turned red. Cloves are native to India, Pakistan and Madagascar.
Allspice: As children you might have thought, as we did, that allspice was a mix of several different spices. Well if you did don’t be embarrassed the reason allspice has its name is that early European explorers thought the same thing when they were first introduced to the Jamaican Peppercorn. They believed that the ground powdered version was a mix of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg
Whole Green Cardamom: We like to use the whole pod because the bitter husk balances well with the spicy seed. Cardamom is a member of the ginger family. We did not grind them as is the common practice but simply lightly cracked them with a hammer.
Juniper Berries: We are very Gin-centric and really wanted to use a high proof gin, but because there was not one available we decided to get some juniper and make a high proof infusion and create a gin-like homemade spirit.
What do we have in the jars?
Jar #1: Milk Thistle Seed, Black Walnut Leaf, Birch Leaf and High Proof Rum (HPR). This is a modification of a recipe from Jamie Boudreau. We used equal portions of each and then filled with the HPR.
Jar #2: Apple peal and Pure Grain Alcohol (PGA). The micro planed peels from 3 Washington Apples and fill the pint jar with PGA.
Jar #3: Cinnamon Stick, Anise Star, Clove, Allspice, Vanilla, and PGA. Once again thanks Jamie.
Jar #4: Fringe Tree Bark, Burdock Root, Milk Thistle Seed, Dandelion Leaf/Root, Barberry Root Bark, Fennel Seed, Wormwood and HPR. Sounded like a good idea.
Jar #5: Grapefruit zest and PGA. The fine zest of 2 large Grapefruits and filled with PGA. Started to turn a pinkish yellow color.
Jar #6: Orange zest and PGA. The fine zest of 4 navel oranges and filled with PGA.
Jar #7: Juniper Berries, Dandelion Leaf/Root and Rye. We think the earthiness of the Dandelion will work well with the spice of the rye and the pine treeiness of the Juniper.
Jar #8: Wormwood and HPR. The really bitter wormwood and the smooth rich rum should play well.
Jar #9: Juniper and PGA. We will use this to try and make a high proof gin of sorts. The thought is that after the infusions is done with can add it to an 80 proof gin and get something in the ballpark of 130 proof without watering down the gin flavor.
Jar #10: Cherry Pits and Rye. This is a complete experiment we will keep you up dated.
Jar #11: Quassia and HPR. Same thought as Jar #8.
Jar #12: Star Anise, Wormwood, Fennel and Rye. Absinthe meets Rye Whisky.
Jar #13: Nugget Hops and Rye. This is the nastiest looking thing ever, it looks like dark green vomit but it smells like a spicy hoppy IPA. So we have high hopes.
Jar #14: Cardamom, Peppercorn, Burdock, Allspice, Lavender, Cinnamon and HPR. This was Robert’s home bitter combination.
Jar #15: Lemon Zest and PGA. The fine zest of 6 lemons and a fill of PGA.
Jar #16: Lavender and PGA
Jar #17: Coriander, Peppercorn, Vanilla, The peel of 2 navel Oranges, The peel of 3 lemons and Rye. The best flavors of Kevin’s favorite Belgium beers and rye, yummy.
Jar #18: Hibiscus Petal and PGA.
We’ll keep you posted on how these turn out. When completed, we plan to blend various jars together and tinker with tons of different recipes. We have been infusing the spirits for about two weeks now, so we are around halfway there. We are also trying to track down a charred barrel so that we can barrel age these bitters for even more complexity.
So, no unlike a classic Jordan baseline move, these bitters aren’t going to be quick and instantly gratifying. This process takes time and dedication, but every great cocktail does. Until then, we will just stick to the available brands, after all, we can still make a killer Manhattan and that’s certainly enough to live off of.
This post was written by Robert Heugel and Kevin Floyd. You can try these bitters at our bar.