Bitters have been used since the mid-19th century to help cure stomach pains and other ailments. They were later added to alcoholic beverages to complement flavors, and have remained popular since. But what are bitters, and how do you make them?
Bitters are any combination of botanicals, roots, spices, or a tincture of the aforementioned that enhances a beverage's flavor. Ingredient examples include mint, hibiscus, coffee beans, orange peels, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
By adding complementary bitters ingredients to popular cocktail recipes, you can amplify flavor profiles. Keep reading to learn how to make bitters, both in general and for specific flavors and drinks.
How To Make Your Own Bitters
Making your own bitters takes some time and a little financial investment, but can be both fun and useful. For optimal results, it’s best to follow proven practices while still affording yourself the freedom to experiment.
Before you run off to get started you should be familiar with the two main ways to make bitters:
- Infusing all ingredients together in the same liquor
- Infusing ingredients separately, then blending them and tweaking if necessary
The first method saves time and requires fewer bartender tools, but may not produce the flavor complexity you’re looking for. Because ingredients infuse slower or faster depending on what they are, you may end up with too much of one flavor and not enough of another.
The second method takes more time and infusion supplies, but yields higher flavor quality and concentration. By infusing everything separately, you’re able to control how long an ingredient sits in alcohol and therefore how much flavor it releases. Ultimately, the method you use depends on your production timeline and the batch size you want to make.
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1. Supplies for Making Bitters
Before you start infusing and straining, you need the equipment necessary to create bitters. Here are the tools you need at a minimum:
- One cutting board (more if you plan to use a lot of ingredients)
- Chopping knife (optional paring knife, too)
- Set of measuring cups and spoons
- One jar for each tincture you’re making
- One jar to store each finished tincture
- Coffee filter or mesh strainer for straining ingredients
- Small plastic or metal funnel
- Bottles or jars for storing completed bitters
- Liquor and ingredients for infusing
Once you’ve acquired this equipment, you’re ready to start infusing ingredients. If it’s your first time making bitters, set aside plenty of time for setup, implementation, and cleaning up.
2. Gather Liquor and Ingredients
No matter what kind of recipe you’re concocting, all bitters should be created with high-proof liquor. This means liquor that is 50% alcohol by volume (ABV) or 100 proof. Vodka or grain alcohols, like Everclear, tend to work the best.
Once you’ve settled on a liquor, finalize your bitters ingredients. It doesn’t matter what botanicals you’re using as long as you know what you want the final tincture combination to resemble.
3. Start Infusing
After you've obtained ingredients, you can begin infusing. If you’re using fresh ingredients, combine one part ingredient with two parts liquor. If you’re using dried materials, use one part ingredient with five parts liquor.
When ingredients are combined, make sure all your jars have airtight seals. This is critical both to the preservation of your ingredients and to prevent loose matter from falling into the jars.
This stage requires varying amounts of time, based on the ingredients you selected, the alcohol level, and types of alcohol you’re using. Some ingredients only need to be infused for a day or two; other substances require a week or more to be ready. The longer the infusion, the stronger the bitters will be.
Check infusion levels by smelling your ingredients at least once per day. You can do this by placing a couple drops of the tincture on your palms, rubbing them together, and smelling the scent. Also, shake the contents of each jar once every four days (if your ingredients need to infuse that long).
The stronger the scent, the stronger the concentration. Aim to keep your scents at a balanced level. This is indicated by a smell you can notice right away, but not one that is overpowering.
4. Strain the Tincture
Once your infusions are complete, it’s time to strain the solids out. Use your mesh strainer or coffee filter to capture solid ingredients while pouring the liquid into a jar.
Once the individual tinctures have been bottled, you can combine them to produce bitters. After combining several liquids, it helps to wait a day or two to allow the separate liquids to fully mix.
You may discover that the combination didn’t turn out the way you hoped. If this is the case, you have a couple options.
One, you can add an ingredient, let it infuse for a while, and re-strain the bitter later. Two, you can make a new batch, although this requires more time and purchasing ingredients again. Three, if the flavor proportions are right but it’s too strong, you can simply dilute it with some water.
5. Tips for Successful Bitters Creation
Bitters are designed to match the type of drink they’re used with. This means that your bitters flavors should complement beverages, and should also be on the list of drinks every bartender should know.
If your drink is on the sweeter side, you can increase the amount of sweet herbs you’re using. Examples of sweet herbs include pineapple sage, lavender, cinnamon basil, and peppermint.
The general rule is to use no more than a teaspoon of bitters per ounce of spirit. In most cases, you only need six to eight drops from a bottle dropper. An exception to this rule is honey, which you can increase to one tablespoon per ounce of spirit, if desired.
6. Examples of Drink and Bitters Combinations
Bitters are fun to make, but the taste won’t be so fun if the bitter doesn’t match the beverage. Rather than guessing what will work, it helps to know what kinds of flavors match popular cocktails, and even some aphrodisiac drinks.
Here are some drink examples and bitters to line them up with:
- Butterbeer—butter, coffee, and pumpkin-flavored bitters
- Gin—lemon and honey bitters
- Apple brandy—apple and agave nectar bitters
- Pale ale—lemon, hops, and brown sugar bitters
- Gin and tonic—lemon, simple syrup, and ginger bitters
- Cranberry drinks—lime, jalapeño, and honey bitters
- Limeade—lemon, honey, sugar, and mint bitters
How To Make Orange Bitters
Orange bitters are one of the simplest and most popular types of bitters to create. They go well with clear liquors, like white rum, gin, and vodka--each of which you should have on your well drinks list.
As you may have guessed, orange bitters do include orange peels, but they have other ingredients too. It all depends on what kind of beverages you’re making, what’s on your happy hour drinks menu, and any special requests the buyer has made.
Here is how to make orange bitters:
1. Collect Ingredients
While you can make orange bitters in whatever style you want, it’s easier if you start with popular ingredients. Frequently used orange bitters ingredients include orange peels, caraway, coriander, anise, burnt sugar, and cardamom.
2. Infuse and Strain
When your ingredients are gathered, add them to your infusion jars with the correct proportion of liquor. After the alcohol is sufficiently infused, strain them into their new bottles.
3. Test Your Bitters
The last stage is one of the most important. Test your new orange bitters in a real drink to see how effective it is. Depending on what you taste, you may want to add a little syrup to balance it out.
4. Store the Liquid
If your batch of bitters was successful, you’ll want to save it for repeated use. After all, you only need a small amount of bitters per drink, and chances are you made enough for at least a couple dozen drinks. Funnel your bitters into dropper bottles and store them in a cool, dry location.
How To Make Angostura Bitters
Dr. Johann Siegert created the first Angostura bitters in Venezuela in 1824. He developed it as a homeopathic remedy for troops facing malaria, and also as a general energy stimulant.
Today, Angostura bitters are used in many cordials, liqueurs, and cocktails. Whiskey, soda, and Caribbean rum are three drink examples that pair well with Angostura.
Use the steps below to create Angostura bitters:
1. Make An Ingredient List
Angostura bitters use leaves, roots, and grasses extracts, like gentian root, cardamom, and cinchona bark. You can use all of these ingredients for your bitters, some of them, or combine them with other ingredients.
2. Infuse Your Ingredients
As is the case when making any bitters, you need to create the tinctures first. Place each ingredient in a separate jar with the right amount of liquor, or combine them all if you’re short on time. Wait the appropriate length of time, then strain the tinctures from the solid ingredients.
3. Try It Out
After your tinctures are complete and you’ve combined them into a bitter, try it out in a drink. See if a small amount is effective and creates the flavor experience you’re looking for. If the flavor isn’t strong enough, increase the bitters amount; if it’s too strong, dilute it with a little bit of water.
How To Make Bitters For Old Fashioned
The old fashioned is the oldest cocktail recipe that’s still widely used, and it’s easy to make bitters for. The drink itself is a combination of whiskey, water, and sugar, plus any bitters and garnishes.
Here’s how to make bitters for old fashioned:
1. Collect Your Ingredients
Angostura bitters are most commonly used for the old fashioned cocktail. The primary ingredient in Angostura bitters is gentian root, which has an earthy, bittersweet flavor.
You can infuse only gentian root, or start with that and include other flavors like cardamom, ginger, or cinnamon. Research how long each ingredient needs to infuse before you proceed to the next step.
2. Infuse and Filter
The next step is infusing each of your ingredients for however long they need. Some ingredients only need about three to five days to infuse, whereas others will take one or two weeks.
After your ingredients are infused, filter out the solids with a mesh strainer or other filter. You can then store your tinctures in fresh jars and combine them into the bitters when you’re ready.
3. Test Them Out
Next is the fun part--testing out your bitters in a real drink. Add about one teaspoon of bitters per ounce of cocktail, and see how it tastes. If your bitters strengthen the flavor of the cocktail without overpowering it, you’ll know you’re in the right place.
Frequently Asked Questions About How To Make Bitters
Though they’re only one part of a beverage, bitters comprise a significant percentage of a drink’s final taste. Because each style of bitters is different, you may still have questions about them and how they’re made.
Here are some commonly asked questions about bitters and our answers:
How do they make bitters?
Bitters are made by infusing aromatic roots, spices, and other botanicals in high-proof liquor, combining the liquids, and adding them to drinks. This is a process that can take anywhere from two to three weeks, depending on how large of a batch you’re making and which ingredients are involved.
After the tinctures are combined, a small portion of bitters is added to a drink. Bitters are designed to match the base liquor of a drink but simultaneously bring out new flavor elements.
What alcohol do you use for bitters?
The best alcohol to use for bitters is high-proof liquor. Most people use Everclear, a grain-distilled spirit that works extremely well for infusing botanicals.
You can use other alcohols as well, but it’s recommended to use liquors that are 50% alcohol by volume (ABV) or greater. Liquors at this level or higher are strong enough to infuse any ingredient added to them.
What are Angostura bitters made of?
Angostura bitters are made with a combination of roots, grasses, and tree bark. Common Angostura ingredients include gentian root, cinchona bark, cardamom, and other grass tinctures.
The exact bitters recipe of official Angostura bitters is a secret, as the Venezuelan House of Angostura produces it. All of the ingredients used in Angostura bitters are native to South America, where the first recipe variation was created in 1824.
You Can Be Bitter or You Can Be Better
Bitters are a valuable addition to any alcoholic beverage. They unlock new dimensions of flavor and are an important part of stocking a bar, general bartending education, and even selling alcohol online.
They’re also easy to make, once you have the right supplies and ingredients. Refer back to these steps any time you’re developing new bitters, training employees, or simply getting creative in your home kitchen.