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Entries in bitters (18)

A Little Holiday DIY

I'm very excited to announce that I'll be doing a 3 hour online class through creativeLive next week on Friday, November 8th from 12:45PM - 4PM. I'll be showing you how to make your own bitters and limoncello for holiday gifts. The class with also touch on ways to use both, batch cocktails and aperitifs, as well as fun gift ideas that use what you've made.

The class is part of a series that includes all sorts of DIY holiday projects like crocheted snowflakes and pinecone ornaments. A few weeks ago we all gathered in the studio the shoot a promo video and if that experience was any indication of the classes they're all going to be a ton of fun.

You can sign up to watch all four or just one live the day they're taped for free or you can purchase the option to have unlimited access to the classes. Here's a link to my specific class, Homemade Liquor Infusions and Cocktail Bitters or the whole series, DIY Holiday Crafts & Cocktails. Be sure to check out the video for a taste of kitschy, wackiness that is in store. 

Eat Real Fest - Make Your Own Bitters

This past weekend I gave two demos in the making of bitters at Oakland's Eat Real Festival. I had a great time and we got huge turn out of enthusiastic folks asking all sorts of questions. Dan and I walked away feeling like this could really work, people loved the tastes we were pouring, and wanted to know all about bitters and cocktails. 

I had a few folks ask if I would post some of the information I was dispensing, so this is more or less what I was sharing with folks. 

Bitters are the spice rack of cocktail making. They highlight or down play flavors, bring disparate flavors together, and add depth to your cocktails. More specifically they are a mixture of herbs, spices, botanicals, and fruits steeped in a booze base. A tincture or extract in the simplest of terms. 

To create your own bitters start by thinking of what types of booze you normally drink or what kind of cocktail you intend to use it in, then pick one or two flavors that go well with it. For instance my aromatic bitters focuses on dried cherries, walnuts, and ginger. I made a lime corriander bitters to use in gimlets, a cardomom bitters to go in fall cocktails with apple juice and vodka. For vodka and tequila lighter, brighter flavors are better, for rum, bourbon and whiskey rich, spicey, and nutty flavors work best. 

Once you decide on a flavor or two to highlight then you select spices and herbs to complement. In my aromatic bitters I use warm baking spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and vanilla. Flavors like lemon and lime work with corriander, black pepper, hops, and basil. Oranges and apples go with clove, cinnamon, and vanilla. The combinations are endless and only limited by your creativity. 

The last part is deciding the bittering agents. I use gentian, quassia and black walnut leaf primarily. Gentian is the strongest and most bitter with an earthy, musty flavor. Quassia is also quite bitter, but has a much cleaner flavor, almost grass like. I use more of the quassia so it hits you up front with a clean, sharp bitterness, and a little gentian to help it linger on the palate. Then I use the black walnut to round out the flavor and add a sweet bitterness to the mix. However, there are many things that can be used to bitter your bitters. Wormwood and cinchona bark are also quite common. Then things like hops or the pith of citrus can also be used to add bitterness.

When you decide all the ingredients you place them in a container with your base alcohol. 100 proof more or less is ideal, watered down Everclear always works, but in many cases 100 proof bourbon or rye is also a great choice. You're roughly looking for a ratio of 1 to 4, solids to booze, but bulkier ingredients like nuts or citrus peel may take up a bit more space. Bittering agents should be used in 1/4 - 1 tsp measurements. Spices in the 1/2 tsp to 1 Tbsp range depending on how strong a flavor. If using fruit try the peel of one or two whole pieces, or a quarter cup chopped. All this should go in 2-3 cups booze.

The rest of the steps are as follows:

Step 1: All ingredients (botanicals + booze) go in the jar and sit for 2 weeks. Shake occasionally.

Step 2: Strain solids from booze. Set booze aside in a sealed container. Simmer solids with 1 - 1 1/2 cups water for 10 minutes. Let water and solids sit for 1 week.

Step 3: Strain and discard solids from water. Mix booze and water together. Add 2 tbsp simple syrup*. Let sit for 3 days.

Step 4: Filter bitters through cheesecloth. Use generously.

*Simple syrup is 2 parts sugar to 1 part water simmered until sugar is dissolved. 

There was a lot experimentation and questions about how much of each ingredient and what goes together, but the truth is there is no one answer. I encourage you to play and test.

May Update

Being busy has a way of floating the most important tasks to the top of the pile. However it also feels like we hit a stagnant patch as every time we try to move forward on our list of tasks we find that one thing is dependent on another that we didn’t expect.

We put together a pitch to ask some of our friends to help us financially in this early stage. A lot of costs are building up, licensing, ingredients, bottles and label design are just a few. We’ve had a few pitch in, but we’re still looking for more to make our plan work. Not having the cash in the bank has been holding up a few things, but we’re still pushing through on getting the label done.

I’m very excited about the design process. I found an amazing designer who totally got my vision and is great to work with. We’re only in the initial stages, but I see something amazing happening. I promise to share more later about the whole process.

The bottle has been another source of frustration. I asked for some samples back in the end of February and found one I loved. Very different than I expected, but it was distinct, classy, and most importantly cheap. However it was from a clearinghouse and didn’t have caps that went along with it and we would have had to buy at 1500 to start, but it was possible the minimum purchase would have been even more. I looked around to source a cap and found that it was designed to take something called ROPP or roll on pilfer proof. They were easy enough to find, but getting them on takes special equipment that wasn’t really going to fit in our budget, not to mention I don’t like the way they look.

So now we’re back to the drawing board with bottles. We’ll most likely end up going with something a little more versatile and simple in design letting the label do all the work, but we still have to find it and it seems most of the bottles on the market are either boring or really odd. We’re narrowing in, but still nothing solid yet.

I also haven’t sent my bitters sample off to be tested for the non-potable designation because we have to have a commercial kitchen listed on the application. In San Francisco commercial kitchen space is hard to find if you don’t create your own. So I reached out to a few friends in the restaurant community looking for a bar that has kitchen space where I could produce. I’ve got a few leads, but still nothing solid.

Slowly, but surely it will all happen. It may not be as fast as I like, but it does feel like we’re moving forward and more importantly doing things in a way that won’t bite us in the ass further down the road. 

It's The Little Things That Make All The Difference

Before finalizing the bitters recipe I had one last question I needed answering. How much did it matter whether I used neutral spirits or bourbon for the base of my aromatic bitters? Actually two questions, because then I wanted to know if there was a considerable difference could I adjust for it in the recipe so that I could use neutral spirits, which are cheaper.

So I made two identical batches, one with 100 proof neutral spirits made from grapes and one with Wild Turkey 101, which I have been using regularly for the last few months. As I was doing the last step, adding my sugar syrup, I tasted a bit of each straight out of the jar. I was surprised by how much brighter and more distinct the flavors were in the neutral batch.

When they were finally ready, Dan and I grabbed the club soda and did a side by side taste test. It was pretty clear the batch with the neutral base tasted better. The flavors were more distinct and it was a bit more bitter than the muddled, slightly sweeter tasting Wild Turkey batch. Which to me was great news, no only did I not have to modify my final recipe I also could use cheaper, easier to source booze as a base.

But then we made Old Fashioneds and everything changed. The neutral batch didn't blend as well and tasted quite harsh in the drink. The Wild Turkey batch on the other hand seemed to brighten the whole drink and really bring it together, the way bitters should. Just to make sure we brought a sample of each kind of bitters over to a friend's house for dinner. I made 8 Old Fashioneds, half with the neutral bitters and half with the Wild Turkey bitters, otherwise they were identical. I didn't tell anyone what they got, but did give each couple one of each so they could taste both versions and give me their honest opinion. There was no question, the Wild Turkey based bitters was preferred.

So while I'm certain the actual brand of bourbon makes little difference, I've tried Bulliet, Rittenhouse Rye, Evan Williams, and the Wild Turkey 101 without being able to distinguish, it must be bourbon for the base of the aromatic bitters.

This does mean my recipe is finalized, but now we are tasked with finding a source of bulk bourbon that will still keep our costs in line. There are options out there, but far less choices. Oddly enough, this little experiment has also left me feeling more confident in my end product. I'm making something I'm not only proud of, every ingredient is truly there for a reason.

Stocking a Home Bar

My father is a carpenter, quite a good one too. As a wedding present he made us a gorgeous table designed to fit our little attic apartment, but still allow us to have dinner parties. More recently he made us a bar, more like a dedicated cabinet to house our booze. We used to have a shelf in our kitchen that held a few bottles and some glassware, but when it came to mixing drinks everything needed to be moved to the kitchen counter to have enough space to work. So we sketched out a few designs, measured for the specifics of our slanted ceiling living room, and gave serious thought to how we would use it. A few months later another piece of gorgeous oak furniture was ours.

We quickly filled it with the liquor we had on hand, the ever-growing collection of bitters, all our barware, and a few books on wine and cocktails. But the bar didn’t seem stocked instead it seemed haphazard. So I started to think about what would make a home bar seemed stocked, but still fit in our tiny space and not break the bank. Even better I decided to share the fruits of those long, thoughtful hours with you.

Start With The Booze

It is a bar after all. I’d suggest picking 3 base spirits that you like to drink with at least one brown and one clear. For our bar bourbon is a given and an aged rum is a nice change of pace. I also chose a lighter, citrusy gin because while I’m not a gin fan, I find a good gin cocktail much more interesting than anything I’ve had with vodka.

Once you’ve decided your 3 base spirits, decide what cocktails you’d like to make most. I’m a fan of simple classic, cocktails that have versatile ingredients, but you should have the makings for whatever you like to drink.

That meant I needed sweet vermouth for Manhattans. I like to mix Dark and Stormys with rum and Gin and Tonics with the gin so I didn’t need any other boozes.

What About The Bitters?

Of course our home bar is heavy on the bitters, but for anyone I suggest having at least two quality bitters. One of the aromatic variety, Angostura is a perfectly fine option, but both Scrappy’s and Fee Brothers will give you something just a little more exciting. Then I would suggest another lighter, more playful type that goes with the spirits you like to drink. Orange bitters is a great compliment to both bourbon and vodka. Grapefruit bitters make gin and tequila sing. Scrappy’s also makes a tasty, cardamom bitters that I’ve seen used very creatively.

Bitters are the playful part of your bar. Think of them as fresh herbs you’re adding to a soup. A little goes a long way, but they make everything brighter and more interesting. 

Then Add The Mixers

Having a few bottles of soda is always nice for those spontaneous guests or cocktail cravings. Plain old seltzer is highly versatile and a must for my Old Fashioneds. Tonic of course for Gin and Tonics and ginger beer for Dark and Stormys is all I need for my basic cocktails. However there are so many great small batch sodas out there it couldn’t hurt to have a little sparkling lemonade, cola or grapefruit soda on hand.

Then there’s juice. I don’t make a lot of cocktails with juice, but if you’re a fan of Tiki drinks pineapple is a must and if you get it in the small cans you don’t have to worry about too much waste. Orange, cranberry and grapefruit juice are also quite versatile and useful.

Now Let’s Garnish 

Garnishes aren’t so much about stocking as they are about having a few things on hand. I’m a huge fan of brandied cherries and they are a requisite part of Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, also very hard to find so I make my own, but quality Maraschino Cherries do just fine. Of course lemons, limes and oranges go a long way in many drinks. You also might consider quality olives for Martinis or a few pickled veggies for Bloody Marys. 

What About The Tools?

I’m a fan of simple when it comes to barware, but there are a few essentials that you should definitely have on hand. A shaker should be your first purchase. I suggest a Boston shaker, the classic stainless steel, pint glass combo. Fancier cocktail shakers with strainers built in tend to be hard to get apart and easy to misplace parts. A shot glass or jigger with marked measurements, strainer, small pairing knife, and long spoon will round out the very basic needs. I would also suggest you find yourself a wooden muddler for Mojitos, Old Fashioneds, and many summer fruit drinks. Not necessary, but quite handy is an ice bucket and a few bar towels.

Then you need something to put those fabulous drinks in. Solid, heavy bottom tumblers will go a long way and they’re both hard to spill or break. For drinks served up, a smaller more delicate glass is nice. I prefer the coup shape to a martini glass, but even a smaller white wine glass can work.

Moving Up From The Basics

Once you have all you need to make 3 or 4 solid cocktails add to your bar with a specific cocktail in mind. Don’t buy a fancy liqueur you don’t know how to use just because it sounds good. It will be forgotten and end up gathering dust. If something strikes your fancy, figure out what to do with it and buy everything you need. From there you can experiment with other combinations, but you’ll always have the first recipe to fall back on.

If you start small and build around your tastes and versatility, you’ll soon have an impressive bar set up that will tempt you to make cocktail hour at home a regular thing.