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Two friends with a shared love for Classic Cocktails, paying homage to the pre-prohibition era. We do parties!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Life is Better with Bitters

These words were spoken to me by a kind stranger while standing in line at a New Seasons Market in Portland; unlike here at home, a broad selection of Fee's and Angostura Bitters are available in grocery stores. I was picking up a bottle of Fee's Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters when the gentleman looked at me and shared the kind phrase. I then went on to share with him that I was in the process of collecting the ingredients to make my own bitters.

The basic to building a batch of bitters is putting together three basic components - a bittering agent, a spice tincture, and a flavouring tincture. Generally, the components to these agents can be quite difficult to find, but I was stoked to come across a bevy of amazing dried herbs while working in Portland. On Hawthorne street, there is a quaint little joint called The Herbe Shoppe. With very helpful staff, I was able to procure wormwood, licorice root, quassia chips, gentian root, calamus, and cinnamon chip. I purchased about an ounce and a half of each, which appears to take me a long way. It all added up to about $15 for the lot, which made this surprising find even better.

To keep it simple, I wanted to follow the Boker's Bitter Recipe, but the ingredients are impossible to find (Catechu...no where). But it did call for the gentian root, calamus, quassia, and cardamom, so I figured I could go from there. I wanted to go with some orange flavouring, but figured, as it was my first go at it, to keep it to just the bitter blend.

I broke it down into 3 small batches that I would blend together after two weeks of maceration.

First, the bittering blend:

Wormwood is a herbaceous plant, and is famous for being a key ingredient in Absinthe, but has also been used as a bittering agent in vermouths and meads. For this recipe, I used 1 teaspoon.

gentian root

Gentian is the 4th ingredient you'll find in Angostura bitters, and is a commonly used digestive aid. For this recipe, I used 1/4 teaspoon


Calamus has been an item of trade in many cultures for thousands of years. Calamus has been used medicinally for a wide variety of ailments, and its smell makes calamus essential oil valued in the perfume industry. In Britain the plant was also cut for use as a sweet smelling floor covering for the packed earth floors of medieval dwellings and churches. In Egypt, it was thought to be an aphrodisiac. For this recipe, I used 1 teaspoon

quassia chips

Born in Brazil, quassia amara is the most bitter substance in nature, so, naturally, it belongs in a batch of bitters! For this recipe, I went with 1 teaspoon.

Secondly, the Spice Tincture
licorice root

 Licorice root, originating in Europe and Asia, is not related to anise, star anise, or fennel, but is a strong licorice component in its own right, and used broadly as a solid flavouring. For this recipe, I used 1/2 a teaspoon

coriander seed

Coriander is commonly used in cooking, and are is a key component in middle eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. You can find the seeds in Garam Masala and Indian curry. Here, I used 1 teaspoon.

fennel seeds

Fennel is a highly aromatic and flavourful herb. Containing anethole, it is a positive medicinal aid for eyes and the intestinal tract (something in common there?). I used 1/2 a teaspoon.

And finally, The Cinnamon Clove Tincture


Ah, cloves. This Indonesian spice is a very common flavour agent in many cuisines around the world. They are also used in Djarums (the clove cigarette of Indonesia) as well as an incense in India and China. For the bitters, I used 1 teaspoon.

Cinnamon Chips

Cinnamon has been known from remote antiquity. It was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BCE. Its history is long, and probably warranting its own story. It was regarded fit for a monarch and even a god. For me, 2 teaspoons of these chips were the perfect flavouring addition for my first batch of bitters.

Each of these combinations was put into a mason jar with overproof vodka. I opted for the vodka as I wanted the flavours to speak for themselves and not be impacted by, say, an overproof rum.

Of course, everyone needs a Bitter Making Helper Hobbit!

everyone needs a helper!

Finally, after two weeks, and shaking each jar once each day, the bitters were ready to be combined and strained. Thankfully, my Krups Moka Brew coffee maker fit the job.
straining through my Krups Moka Brew coffee pot
Then, they get bottled! I thought the bitters would be darker, but I am quite happy with how they turned out. They certainly are bitter and so far are a fine additive to an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan!

Bottled! A bit lighter in colour than I had imagined
So, that is my first batch. I am hoping to get another batch up and running. I hope to do an Orange bitter and a rhubarb bitter. Cheers!


  1. Great post, Jer! Can't wait to try it!

  2. My advice is to go sparingly with the wormwood since it can ruin bitters recipes quicker than most (save for milk thistle). My sink can attest to that. Or perhaps make a tincture and add it separately to the rest of the infusion at the end until you get the right bitterness level. While too much gentian isn't that bad, too much wormwood is vicious (absinthe uses a distillate of wormwood which removes most of the bitterness).

    Catechu / betel nut can be found in two places. One is eBay (don't get the flavored stuff. Sliced, cracked, or whole nut only). The other is certain Indian spice stores; it is often hard to find it there for they do tend not to label it, but when it is sliced, it has a beautiful marbling to it. Before familiar with what it looks like on google image search, and you'll learn to spot it quickly).

  3. Thanks, Frederic! Glad you were able to share some great advice. I am really looking forward to doing another batch and playing around with the bitter profile and the flavour profiles.

    Great blog you have there, by the way.