From Victorian apothecary cure-all to bartender’s go-to magic potion, bitters are enjoying a brilliant revival. Time to make your own house blend, then.
They perform a kind of modern day alchemy. A golden elixir that, with just a few drops, transforms base ingredients into magical, mind-altering concoctions. Whether you’re inclined towards a spicy Old Fashioned or bitter Brandy Sour, the merest shake of well-chosen bitters can supercharge your spirits and seriously improve your bar repertoire.
Yes, you can buy a whole heap of the botanical infusions – there are small-batch makers cropping up by the day on that internet – but it’s way better to distil your own, and create a bespoke edge to your Christmas imbibitions. It’s a labour of love, though – part Walt White in the winnebago, part lock-in with Heston. But, once you get the bitters bug, you’ll be totally transfixed.
What are they?
Bitters began their curious life in the medicine cabinet – distilled essences of flower, spice, herb and root; they were called upon for their curing abilities. Back in the 15th century they were the go-to remedy for everything from upset stomachs to migraines.
“As humans we evolved eating tons and tons of bitters – bitter greens, bitter roots, bitter barks,” says Bitter boss-man, herbalist Guido Masé.
“Fast forward to modern times, and we consume a vast amount of sweet, salty and processed food. But our bodies still need bitter. It engages and excites the digestive system,” he explains.
“They’re harder to digest, so they stimulate secretions such as saliva, acids, enzymes, hormones and bile. Each of these acts as a solvent to break down food for absorption, and ensure proper nutrition,” he says.
Also, after a bitter stimulus we find sugar less appealing. “We consume fewer calories. Our average blood glucose levels are more balanced, and our bellies empty more slowly.”
We’ll drink to that. Bitters still straddle two camps: digestive bitters, and cocktail bitters. But the building blocks are the same. So let’s get bitter.
The bitter base
All bitters consist of a base of bitter-tasting roots, barks, or leaves, plus other flower and spice botanicals that provide the finishing touch of pop-out flavour.
Bitter agents make up between 20-50% of the blend. Gentian root is a good all-rounder – it’s the bitterest-tasting thing on earth. Always get whole, not powdered, because it’s easier to strain.
Other bitters to try include angelica root, artichoke leaf, citrus peel, dandelion root and leaf, liquorice root, mugwort, Oregon grape root, orris root, quassia bark, sarsaparilla, wild cherry bark, cinnamon and wormwood.
Your alcohol base needs to be high proof in order to extract and preserve maximum flavour (you use only a tiny dash of bitters in each drink, so the amount of alcohol consumed is next to nothing). Good quality vodka will do it, as will pure grain alcohol you can pick up from the pharmacy (with, probably, a funny look from the pharmacist).
The main aromatics
These give your bitters the stand-out flavour profile. Have fun, experiment. Try infusing them in boiling water first (like a herbal tea) to get a sense of what they might develop into. Remember, with bitters, the longer the maceration (the soaking and steeping of the ingredients) the deeper the flavour. Woody tinctures need longer, greener herbs not so much. Try allspice berries, coriander, and fennel seeds, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, juniper or peppercorns.
For the flower notes try orange, cherry, liquorice, rhubarb, mint, hibiscus, rose or lavender to give a heady, sweet hit that rounds out the flavour.
THE BASIC BITTERS MIX
¼ -½ cup main aromatics
1-4 tablespoons supporting aromatics (choose 3 to 5)
1-4 tablespoons bittering agents (choose 2 to 4)
1 cup high-proof alcohol
1 tablespoon sugar dissolved in 2 teaspoons water
1. Place the aromatics and bittering agents in a dark-glass jar and add the alcohol. Seal and shake thoroughly. Store at room temperature. Shake daily, for up to 21 days. Taste. (You can infuse your ingredients separately – a good idea, as infusion times vary. Then you can blend them together to taste).
The infusion will be ready when the tincture strongly smells of the ingredient. To smell, put a couple drops of the infusion in your palms, rub them together, and hold your hands up to your nose.
2. When the desired flavour is achieved, strain through a funnel lined with a coffee filter or cheesecloth into a clean jar. Repeat as needed to remove any remaining debris. Stir in the dissolved sugar.
3. Securely close jar and store at room temperature. Best used within a year.
What works together?
With so many potential woody, spicy and floral ingredients to choose from, it can be daunting to know what to throw into the mix. Established (i.e. successful) combinations include:
Citrus: Lemon, cloves, orange, grapefruit – with a fennel, cardamom, gentian and coriander base. Great with an Old Fashioned or a Whisky sour.
Abbot’s: A classic NYC mix, featuring cloves, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, star anise, gentian, lavender and cassia. Perfect for a Christmassy Champagne cocktail.
Celery: Celery, lemongrass, orange peel, gentian root, spearmint and ginger make this great to perk up a Martini or Bloody Mary.
Cherry Bitters: Dried cherries, lemon peel, walnut leaf, wormwood, milk thistle, burdock, star anise and vanilla. Perfect to add a little zip to a delicious Manhattan.
Rhubarb: Rhubarb, cinnamon stick, coriander, juniper berries, angelica, orange peel, grapefruit, angostura. A sweetly tart twist on a Singapore Sling, or even in a cognac.
Creole: Fruity and floral, with star anise, caraway and fennel with wormwood, peppercorns, cinnamon and allspice. Try it in a Sazerac cocktail.
For ingredients try:
For the full-on bitter blast, don’t forget your greens…
“I’ve always liked bitterness. I grew up eating proper, white grapefruit, which are pleasantly bitter,” says award-winning food writer Jennifer McLagan.
Her (brilliant) new book – Bitter – is part scientific exploration of the alchemy bitter brings to our digestive system, and part celebration of the deliciousness it adds to the simplest of dishes.
“I like it cooked to the point just before it burns, so that while it is still sweet it has an underlying complexity and bitterness that makes it much more interesting to eat,” she says, of the fruit that you just can’t seem to find these days – having been edged out by its perkier pink cousin.
“Lots of fruits and vegetables are being bred to be less bitter, grapefruit is my biggest bête noire. Pink and red grapefruit have much less naringin, a powerful anti-oxidant that’s so good for us. Grapefruit juice is actually debittered, a process where they remove all the bitter tasting, healthy naringin before bottling it.”
“Sugar is going into everything, and many of us are losing an appreciation of bitterness. But the growth of craft beers, the popularity of higher cacao content chocolate bars and the growing interest in cocktails with bitters is encouraging.”
In her book, McLagan ponders why some culinary cultures – Italy and parts of Asia notably – have an deep affection for bitter (think of those bitter red radicchios, or even a tart Campari and soda), while most of us have been weaned off the flavour in favour of salt and sweet.
“Bitter is the perfect partner for fat, a taste very close to my heart, how could I not champion it?” she says, down the line from her Toronto kitchen.
In 100 eclectic recipes and ruminations McLagan makes a case for this misunderstood flavour and shows how a little bit of bitter will burst open your taste buds, and supercharge your gut. In a good way. Especially at Christmas time. And we’re drawn to one in particular.
“Ah, the beer jelly!” she laughs, “It’s fun. You have a small spoonful with smoked fish, or perhaps a charcuterie platter.”
Ambleside’s excellent Lake Road Kitchen grows 80% of everything green on its menu, including the bitter greens and herbs they forage from around the Lake District, to stunning effect. “We work as generations before us have done, by making the most of what we have,” they say.
The easiest way for us to reconnect with bitter? McLagan says we should learn to love the difficult salad.
“Instead of using simply regular sweet lettuces like iceberg or Bibb, add some bitter leaves – radicchio, witloof, escarole, or endive. All these chicories are available in the winter months and add a good hit of bitterness to a salad.”
And now is the time to start.
Many of these vegetables are at their peak in the winter so start with a salad. Try sautéing the leaves in some salty bacon fat. Fat balances bitter and a little salt tames extreme bitterness. The bitterness will make your meal more interesting to eat and is good for you too.”
Rekindle your bitter bonfire now and, by next spring you’ll be ready to tackle the bounty in your own backyard.
“Get out there and harvest the dandelions before they flower – once they flower they are too bitter even for me. Try white asparagus in the spring, more bitter than green and much more interesting to eat.”
Meanwhile, with the season of over-indulgence approaching, does Bitter hold any medicine we should harness to help keep our gouty legs in check?
“I know many people who swear by a dash of Angostura bitters in sparkling water if they’re feeling under the weather. I think we should, like the Italians, enjoy a bitter alcohol before dinner, it is an excellent appetite stimulant,” she says.
Camparis all round, then.
Bitter, Jennifer McLagan
(pub Random House)