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Bitters 101

How can you make them at home?

“Making bitters is a lot of fun and there are several ways to do so,” says Chris Milligan, head mixologist at Santa Fe's Secreto Lounge. Milligan knows a thing or two about the subject: he wrote the section on making bitters for the 
United States Bartender Guild's Master Mixologist Accreditation Study Guide. You can find his basic instructions here.

There are a few guidelines to keep in mind if you want to start experimenting with bitters at home. “Avoid water-filled items and particularly juicy fruits; stick to drier ingredients for a cleaner infusion and purity of flavor,” advises Lauren Lathrop Williams (left), assistant manager of Jsix Restaurant  in San Diego. If you want the flavor of juicy fruits such as oranges, limes, lemons, or tangerines, you should use the peels and trimmings rather than the pulp, she says.

“Use scrupulously clean jars and label them,” says Sam Meyer, a cocktail blogger based in Queens, New York. Meyer, who has 28-30 handcrafted bitters on hand at home, says clean jars prevent the transfer of unwanted flavors into your bitters. And labels? Well, once you start experimenting, “the kitchen can definitely fill up with murky jars quickly.”

His other piece of clutch advice? Experiment a lot. The more you play around with bitters, the more you'll learn. “Fresh ingredients will extract differently from dried, and the higher the alcohol percentage [of your spirit of choice], the easier and quicker it will extract flavors,” he adds. When using spices and aromatics, Meyer recommends toasting them in a clean, dry, heavy skillet to draw out their full flavors. Finally, he says, don't dismiss spirits you don't necessarily enjoy drinking straight. “For my lime bitters,” he says, “I use J. Wray & Nephew white overproof rum from Jamaica, which doesn't taste that wonderful to me on its own (well, to me it tastes a bit like I imagine kerosene to) but is great at picking up other flavors.”

Where can you source unusual ingredients?

Bitters lend themselves to unusual ingredients, but for people living outside major cities, such ingredients might be hard to find. Fortunately, mail-order services can help out. In New York, Sam Meyer recommends Kalustyan's, an Indian store with a wide range of international spices. Specialty food shops and old-fashioned apothecaries are also ideal places to source bitters ingredients. Meyer says Tenzing Momo and Dandelion Botanical Company, both in Seattle, have active mail-order operations.            

What kinds of Latin-inspired flavors would work well as bitters?

Ingredients we identify with la cocina latina work really well in bitters. Ben Molina, co-owner and bartender of Cinco, a Oaxacan cantina and cocina in the Los Angeles area, says avocado leaves, allspice, cilantro, citrus peels, and dried chiles are all good choices. Lauren Lathrop Williams, assistant manager at Jsix t recommends using earthy or smoky flavors rather than bright, fresh ingredients. “I would use a smoky chipotle or fire roasted chili instead of fresh jalapeño or Serrano,” she says. “Florals like hibiscus or a pulpy fruit like tamarind also work very well,” she says.”

Chris Milligan of Secreto Lounge agrees that Latin flavors lend themselves to bitters and that these bitters can be very complimentary to certain Latin liquors. “So many of them go with the flavors south of the border,” he says. “Mezcal likes a smoky flavor. Cachaca and pisco do well with fruit-based bitters.”

Inspired? Next, our basic bitters recipe and a bitters cocktail recipe to try...

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