Bespoke Bitters: Handcrafting Custom Cocktail Ingredients

We are deeply entrenched in the Modern Mixology, Craft Cocktail, and Artisanal Movements. “Civilians” watch in wonderment as those behind the business side of the stick work their magic, no longer merely pouring drinks but crafting – building, really – cocktails. The bartender has replaced the rock star.

If it sounds like I’m one of those who is awed by talented bartenders and mixologists, it’s because at times I am. I tried my hand at bartending well over a decade ago and while I could claim that I did the profession proud, I wasn’t really that good at it. So, when I encounter a skilled bartender who is engaging and can make classic, simple, sophisticated, signature, and on-the-fly bespoke cocktails equally well, I’m impressed. But about a month ago I got to thinking:

How hard is it to craft homemade cocktail ingredients?

I also thought that maybe some of you would like to create your own bitters, syrups, or tinctures, even if it’s just for a home bar. I discovered that all you need to craft your own specialty items is desire, a little bit of research, the right tools and ingredients, time and patience. Imagination and the drive to be a true cocktail aficionado will help too.

For your own bitters you’ll need a 100-plus-proof spirt like grain alcohol or unaged white whiskey, but you can basically use whatever you wish. In the case of the bitters I made with the assistance of Jessica Deibel, a friend who knows her way around beer, spirits, cocktails and cooking, we used UV 103. As the name suggests, it’s a 103-proof vodka. For some reason it was incredibly difficult to locate higher-proof vodka in Las Vegas.

You’ll also need a mason jar, funnel, cheesecloth for filtering, dropper bottles, bittering agents, base ingredient or ingredients, and a quarter-cup of sugar (or 2 tablespoons of honey or maple syrup). For your first time out it may be easiest for you to purchase a bitters kit from a company such as Easy & Oskey or Hella Bitters, and a book like Handcrafted Bitters: Simple Recipes for Artisanal Bitters and the Cocktails That Love Them. We used the Easy & Oskey kit for the hardware, instructions and bittering agents. Just an FYI, you can find bittering agents (bitter roots and barks) like cassia chips, gentian and cinchona in specialty grocery stores and on websites like Amazon.

Since we’re in the winter months, we decided to make cranberry bitters. The process was rather simple. After the kit and UV 103 were procured, we bought some cranberries.

First, the bittering agents need to be crushed to activate the oils and then toasted for 3 minutes.

While the bittering agents are toasting, put the cranberries into a bowl, gently muddle them, and place them in a mason jar.

Next, add the bittering agents and 200ml of spirits to the mason jar. Shake the jar vigorously. Now you have to be patient: the ingredients need 4 to 6 weeks of steeping with the jar being shaken once a day.

We waited 4 weeks before tending to the mash (the soaked mixture of ingredients in the mason jar) but you may choose to let them steep for up to 6 weeks. Using the cheesecloth, separate the mash from the alcohol. You can put them both into their own containers but we placed the mash in a small pot with 200ml of water since that’s the next step anyway.

Bring the mash and water to a slight boil and then immediately reduce to a simmer. Let it simmer for 3 minutes.

Pour the water and mash mixture into a mixing glass, large measuring cup or other vessel and strain the liquid into the already separated alcohol mixture through cheesecloth. Throw away the mash.

Now you get to caramelize sugar, unless you’re using honey or syrup instead. Just add a quarter-cup of sugar to a small pan, set the heat to medium-low and stir the sugar continuously until it turns light brown. Don’t let it burn and BE CAREFUL: caramelized sugar is VERY HOT and VERY STICKY – you don’t want to spill any on yourself. When the sugar liquefies, pour it into the bitters mixture (the alcohol and mash-water blend) slowly. Stir it and leave it overnight to dissolve.

Almost done! Strain any sediment out of the mixture through cheesecloth. This is called clarifying and it can be done as many times as you like. Just don’t force the process or rush through it. We clarified only once.

Pour the clarified bitters into the dropper bottles via the funnel, label them and store the rest in a container.

Final step: Taste and try out your bitters in a cocktail.

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