Angostura bitters are a wonderful ingredient – a necessity for any home bar and an item not used enough these days. But in the original days of the cocktail (pre-Prohibition) a number of proprietary bitters were on the market. Today, a couple commercially produced bitters remain… Angostura, Peychaud’s (most famous for its use in the Sazerac) and orange bitters. Angostura is available in the supermarket even, Fee Brothers orange bitters you can get at a couple places in Boston (Marty’s and I believe Liquorland), while Peychaud’s isn’t sold here.
Well, it turns out making bitters at home is not all that difficult. All you need to do is to infuse a high-proof spirit with a combination of citrus, spices and herbs, then dilute to get to a reasonable proof. Much like making limoncello. It probably won’t have the same shelf life as a store-bought bottle (I keep mine in the fridge), but its freshness will be noticeable.
The easiest place to start is orange bitters. Traditional recipes may call for spices, I don’t know, but I used simply the zest of the sour orange. For some reason these fruit aren’t generally popular, but Hispanic markets stock these (I get mine at Hi-Lo Market, or at the fruit stands near Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain).
Makes scant 1/3 cup
Zest of two sour orange (naranga agria)
4 T. 151-proof rum, or high-proof spirit of choice
Macerate zest and spices in liquor for a week, covered in the refrigerator. Strain into small jar. Add a two tablespoons pure water to dilute.
The result? The bitterness was accentuated over the Fee Brothers, but more importantly the floral scent of the orange was fresher and more powerful. I definitely prefer the homemade.
Even more successful was a grapefruit based recipe I created and called Jamacian bitters, not because they’re actually a Jamaican recipe, but because the spices and flavors are those you’d find in Jamaican cooking.
Makes scant 1/4 cup
Zest of one grapefruit
one slice fresh ginger
few berries allspice
few whole cloves
1/2 in. of true cinnamon (canela) stick
1/4 t. black peppercorns
3 T. 151-proof rum, or high-proof spirit of choice
Macerate zest and spices in liquor for a week, covered in the refrigerator. Strain into small jar. Add a tablespoon or so of pure water to dilute.
A note on spices: you can improvise on the ingredients, of course, but be careful not to overwhelm with any one note. Ginger, for one, can be overpowering if too much is used. And use in moderation, if you can find it, true cinnamon (soft cinnamon, or canela), whose flavor is far milder than the Red-Hot-tasting cassia bark that’s sold in the U.S. as cinnamon. Hispanic markets like JP’s Hi-Lo and International sections of supermarkets sell whole canela; or, check out Polcari’s in the North End.
How to use these homemade bitters? Well, you can use the orange bitters in any recipe calling for them… I use a tad more in the recipe than I would with storebought, as the flavor is less saturated. But if you want a drink to really let these shine, particularly the Jamaican Bitters, I’d recommend the simple summer highball, the Gin Rickey.
1/2 juicy lime
1 jigger dry gin
Several dashes citrus bitters
Fill highball glass with ice. Coat ice with bitters. Squeeze lime and drop in spent shell. Add gin, then top with club soda. Stir briefly.
As is, the rickey is a lovely mixed drink, the unfairly overlooked homely cousin to the gin and tonic. The bitters are my addition, not traditional, but try them and I think you’ll find that they pick up an understated drink and take it somewhere interesting.