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The Bitter Beginning

What are cocktail or aromatic bitters? They used to be medicine but now as the site Post Prohibition aptly put it are best thought of as “cock­tail sea­son­ing, like salt for a soup.”

Why make bitters? Simply put: I like adding them to cocktails (Manhattans or Martinis, mostly), drinking them straight up or with soda water and ice, and they are difficult to find.

Our nonsensical liquor laws allow grocery stores to sell them (even though they are 40% alcohol) but not liquor stores. If they stock them at all grocery stores usually only have standard-issue Angostura bitters. There are some good online sources for a broader selection of bitters but the shipping costs can be prohibitive.

With orange bitters in mind I turned to Google. Searching for recipes can a fool’s errand because of how effectively Rachel Ray, Sandra Lee and their ilk are at stuffing the top of the results pages with recipes that are easy rather than delicious. Thankfully, bitters are niche enough that they haven’t yet attracted the multi-headed beast’s attention.

The recipe I chose to adapt from is Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 5 as posted on the site Post Prohibition.

Bitters recipes use grain alcohol and water as solvents to extract aromatic flavour compounds from a fairly esoteric list of spices, dried peel, and spice-like chunks of wood. Again thanks to our omnipotent government alcohol regulators it is next to impossible to get your hands on grain alcohol in Ontario. The recipe I’m working from calls for water as well as grain alcohol and luckily there is a product that is widely available in Ontario that combines both water and grain alcohol: vodka.

The recipe uses the water component in three ways: To dilute the alcohol’s strength in the original stage; as a medium for boiling and simmering the spices (the hotter the solvent the better it works); and finally to cut the strength of the finished product. The water phase of vodka could accomplish the first and third tasks but because the alcohol would evaporate I won’t be able to heat the vodka.

The obvious test to check if this makes a difference is to split the batch in half and follow the more complicated recipe using the grain alcohol (Alcool purchased in Quebec).

The solid ingredients in the recipe are gentian root, cinchona bark, quassia bark chips, orange peel, carraway seeds and cardamom seeds. The latter three were easy to find at Kensington’s Casa Acorena but for the former three I had to go to Herbie’s Herbs on the suggestion of @whoresradish. My only complain about Herbie’s is that almost all of their inventory comes pre-packaged so if anyone knows of a good use for a (almost full) large-ish bag of cinchona bark please let me know.

I’ll report back when this experiment is finished in about four weeks. In the meantime if you’ve made bitters with vodka or have something to add to my thought process please comment below.

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5 Comments

  1. Jesslyn says:

    This is so amazing. I was having lunch with Joel Solish today and I mentioned I was looking to do my own bitters, but was having sourcing troubles. He led me to you, and voila! I will definitely take some of that cinchona bark!

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks, Jesslyn. I will also have quassia bark chips and gentian root to share. Depending on how much I use I may also have dried orange peel but as I say this can be found quite easily in Kensington.

  3. Josh says:

    Good luck guys. Let me know how it turns out and what you use your bitters on. I’d love you to share your results on my comments section. .

  4. Joe says:

    You may want to consider making your own tonic water….. I like this recipe http://www.petitekitchenesse.com/2012/02/19/homemad-tonic-water/ It is pretty awesome…. Although i personally do not have the soda stream she has I just add it to seltzer water…

  5. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for the comment, Joe. On my last visit to the store that sells all the esoteric ingredients for the bitters, the woman who works there mentioned that an increasingly large percentage of their customers are in because they’re making their own tonic water. May have to add it to my list.

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