Bitters is for cocktails, as salt is for soup.
~ Robert “DrinkBoy” Hess
A short post today, as I’m getting ready to roll out of town for a roadtrip to Los Angeles. Pics to come later.
Bitters is a decidedly old school cocktail ingredient enjoying a renaissance these days. Well, among some bartenders, anyway. It’s a pity how often I order a Manhattan and still need to specify “with bitters” because younger barkeeps don't know. But a lot of professional bartenders and home enthusiasts are getting into the game, not only using commercial examples such as Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth, and Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, but also by making their own “house” bitters.
Why bother with bitters? Well, because they make cocktails taste great, that’s why. Intensely gaggy, puckering and, well, bitter on their own, cocktail bitters don’t make a pleasant tipple. But they do make a tipple pleasant and often smell great. Just a few dashes can make the difference between an “eh” experience and a flat-out “wow.” As the man says, they are as salt for soup. I've been known to dash some into cupcake frosting. Yes, on purpose.
Taking cues from Chuck Taggart over at the Gumbo Pages, John Deragon, and Jeffery Morgenthal, I made a batch of grapefruit bitters not long ago and am pleased with the results.
(adapted from The Gumbo Pages)
I’ve included a dose of Bacardi 151 here for two main reasons: (1) I needed to pour some out of a bottle of 151 to make room for a bunch of allspice berries while trying out a homemade version of pimento dram and (2) I used some big honkin’ grapefruits—local oro blancos—so I needed more high-proof spirits than Chuck’s recipe called for to cover the ingredients.
750ml Wray & Nephew Overproof White Rum (126 proof)
4 oz (120ml) ml Bacardi 151
2 large grapefruits
2 tablespoons whole coriander seed
2 oz fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
¼ cup roasted unsalted almonds
6 tablespoon sugar
3 (45ml) tablespoons water
Peel the grapefruits and finely chop the whole peel, including (and especially) the white pith that makes these bitters bitter. Put the pieces with the ginger and rums in a large glass jar with a silicon or rubber gasket seal.
Heat a dry skillet over a medium flame. Toast the coriander seeds until they are slightly darkened (brown is what we’re going for here, not anything even close to black). Put the seeds into a mortar and lightly crush them. Alternately, spread the toasted seeds on a cutting board and use the flat of a 8-10” kitchen knife to push against them to lightly crush them. You’re only looking to break the seeds into 2-5 pieces for greater flavor extraction, not pulverize them.
Roughly chop the almonds and toast them lightly in the dry skillet. Add to the jar. Seal, swirl it about, and store for one week. Give it a gentle shake whenever you pass by to remind it who’s boss.
After a week, strain everything through a fine sieve lined with a cotton strainer, several layers of cheesecloth, or a coffee filter. Using a funnel, pour it into an empty liter bottle.
Finish your bitters by adding caramelized sugar syrup -- place the sugar in a small, heavy pan (unlined copper if you’ve got it) and heat over medium heat until the sugar melts and turns light-to-medium brown. Sugar turns quickly, and burns readily. Watch the pot carefully and remove it from the heat as soon as it gets almost to the color you want. Remove from the heat and carefully add the water. Stir and/or swirl until all the sugar has dissolved. Add the caramel syrup to the bitters and let stand until it's clear, then decant into small bottles.