Home-made bitters

December 1st, 2007

Regular readers may have picked up on the fact I’m a bit of a bitters aficionado. Having reviewed almost every commercially available brand of orange bitters and aromatic bitters, and even getting my hands on some Hermes bitters from Japan, there didn’t seem to be anywhere for my obsession to go. Except, that is, making my own!

A selection of spices and herbs used to make bitters

After scouring local food and health shops for bizarre ingredients such as gentian root, star anis and cinchona bark, I set out to make two sets of bitters based on existing recipes. Firstly, a batch of Hess House Bitters which were created by Robert Hess whilst trying to recreate the long-defunct Abbott’s bitters. Secondly, a batch of Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 5, the recipe upon which the now commercially available Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 evolved from.

Both recipes follow a similar process. You first steep various spices (and unsurprisingly with the orange bitters, orange) in an alcohol base for several weeks, allowing the spices to impart their flavour on the alcohol. After several weeks, the ingredients are separated from the alcohol, boiled in water and then left to steep again, this time for just a week. After this is complete, the ingredients can be discarded and the water combined with the alcohol. The final ingredient added is burnt sugar, and once that has dissolved fully the bitters can be filtered and bottled.

Herbs and spices steeping in alcohol to create bitters

Not exactly a speedy process is it? I’ve followed the recipes fairly closely, although I have reduced the amount of Rye, and hence other ingredients, used in the Hess bitters as it would have produced far more than I could ever hope to use. I also used high-proof vodka rather than grain spirit in the Regan’s bitters, so will probably reduce the amount of water added at the end to try and keep the alcohol content as high as possible.

A few weeks ago I began steeping the ingredients in alcohol, and since then I’ve been shaking my mason jars every day and watching the alcohol slowly darken as the ingredients slowly impart their colour and flavourings. It amazing how the liquid is transformed, as can be seen by the colour of the Rye in the photo above, and then two weeks later in the photo below.

Filtering bitters ingredients from the liquid

Today, with the help of a Buchner funnel and vacuum pump, I completed the first step by separating out the ingredients from the alcohol. The vacuum filter system is much, much faster than waiting for the liquid to naturally drip through something like coffee filter paper, and should hopefully be even more effective at getting rid of unwanted particles. Big thanks to Darcy whose post about the funnel encouraged me to get one.

After several passes through increasingly finer filter paper I felt the alcohol was done, and the solid ingredients were then added to a pan of water and brought to the boil. This water will now sit for a week, again being shaken once a day, and once that week is up I can then finish making the bitters and give them a try.

Herbs and spices simmering in a saucepan

The smell of both is already incredible, so I cannot wait to find out how these bitters end up tasting. I’m especially interested in seeing how the Regan’s Orange bitters No. 5 compare to the No. 6 bottle I have. Check back in a week or so, and I will let you know how they turn out…

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Posted in Bitters

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6 responses to “Home-made bitters”

  1. Marshall Marshall says:

    Great post Josh! I’ve been thinking about doing the same thing so I’m very interested in how yours turn out. I’ll need a little bit more room in my fridge first . . . too many homemade syrups for my cocktails right now.

    Cheers!
    -Marshall

  2. Jay Jay says:

    You don’t need any fridge space Marshall – all this happens at room temperature. The resulting bitters should be plenty high enough in alcohol content to be shelf-stable too. So now you have no excuse… ;)

  3. myles myles says:

    try putting your bitters in the freezer. cold filtration is used alot in wines. it helps to clear the liquid much quicker!!! then just siphon off your resulting clear liquid. less use of muslin cloth or other filtering agents

  4. Jay Jay says:

    Myles – that’s a great idea actually. I believe a lot of whisk(e)y is chill-filtered too. Next time I play with bitters I will definitely give this a go.

  5. Aleks Loesch Aleks Loesch says:

    As a fellow Londoner, where on Earth did you get the spices from?

    Ive gone to about 10 health shops, including “the spice shop” in Notting Hill, and even they haven’t even heard of all the spices needed!

    I am thinking of fig, cardamon and maple syrup bitters myself an odd choice I suppose, but then I look at some other bitters that people are making and guess that mine isn’t so exotic an idea after all.

  6. Jay Jay says:

    Aleks – Yeah it was harder to track stuff down than I thought it would be too. I used the spice shop for some – when I visited I found they did sometimes have stuff their staff didn’t think they had! Might be worth taking a look around. I also found quite a lot of what I needed at a small convenience store in Muswell Hill weirdly enough. Also in Muswell Hill is a place called W. Martyn, a tea merchant that also stocks some spices and botanicals. The Indian and Chinese supermarkets you find dotted around are also useful sources.

    Love the idea of using fig in bitters!

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