Last weekend I brought a small vial of home-brewed bitters to a friend’s apartment so that we could make proper Old Fashioned’s. Another guest at the party looked at the apothecarian bottle, “Oh, you’re that guy.”
Yes, darling, I am that guy (written with completely unironic bitterness). I am a maker. You, perhaps, dear snide one, are a consumer. Newsflash: We need each other.
Now to the crux of it:
It is not lost on me that my favorite drinks skew so far on the bitter scale that they may be reflecting an inner pool of indignance only just now being plumbed. That’s fine. I’d rather be a sharp witted Campari drinker than one of those insipid sippers of Malibu Rum. Sweet drinks are the folly and invention of college aged alcohol initiates. Bitter cocktails are for adults (and those of us pretending to the throne).
While working at an Italian restaurant/mob front (yes, that still exists in NYC), our bartender (Elisa, 5’1”, all smoke and dark lipstick) made a round of Americanos every night for the staff as we closed down. I had often wondered about the electric orange bottle of Campari, and the highball she handed me was a revelation. Acrid, sharp, refreshing, it was everything I never knew I liked in a drink.
An Americano needs three things: Campari, vermouth and bitters (and a splash of soda, but no one counts the bubbles). I have been actively building my liquor cabinet, now that I live alone, and after acquiring a bottle each of Campari and sweet vermouth I hunted for the perfect batch of bitters. Before this I knew nothing about the liquid, just that bartenders shook a few dashes into my most favorite cocktails.
Turns out, like most things, commercial bitters are filled with caramel coloring and fake flavors. I was annoyed. When I reached for the locally made small batch bitters, I found what I was looking for: a bottle of medicinal herbs and spices, blended to make a statement in my drink. Unfortunately these small bottles (4 ounces at most) started at $15 and went up. I am both cheap and crafty, so when I saw the price I immediately decided to make my own. It couldn’t be that hard, right?
This recipe was my guiding light. I followed the process exactly, only changing out some of the herbs and roots for flavors I had in my head. Making bitters isn’t rocket science, but it does take time. Soak a bunch of your favorite medicinal plants in overproof alcohol and wait (What’s that? You don’t have favorite medicinal plants? That’s why you have my recipe).
As we enter a crisp Fall I charge you with this: Be bitter. Be sharp. Be quick and crass and smart and light. And keep it all to yourself.
- 2 cups Wild Turkey
- 1 cup toasted Almonds
- 3 Plums, cut in half, fresh with pit
- 4 Star Anise
- 1 Vanilla Bean, split
- 2 Licorice Sticks (this is a root, not a candy)
- 1 tablespoon Juniper Berries
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Earl Grey Tea
- Fresh Burdock, the size of a small carrot, ~1.5 ounces, sliced with carrot peeler
- 2 tablespoons Simple Syrup (heat one cup sugar in one cup water until dissolved, let cool)
- In a 1-quart glass jar, combine all of the ingredients except the syrup. Cover and shake well. Let stand in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks, shaking the jar daily.
- Strain the infused alcohol into a clean 1-quart glass jar through a cheesecloth-lined funnel. Squeeze any infused alcohol from the cheesecloth into the jar; reserve the solids. Strain the infused alcohol again through new cheesecloth into another clean jar to remove any remaining sediment. Cover the jar and set aside for 1 week.
- Meanwhile, transfer the solids to a small saucepan. Add 1 cup of water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes; let cool completely. Pour the liquid and solids into a clean 1-quart glass jar. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 week, shaking the jar once daily
- Strain the water mixture through a cheesecloth-lined funnel set over a clean 1-quart glass jar; discard the solids. If necessary, strain again to remove any remaining sediment. Add the infused alcohol and the syrup. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 3 days. Pour the bitters through a cheesecloth-lined funnel or strainer and transfer to glass dasher bottles. Cover and keep in a cool, dark place.