Grow Your Own Bitters (with Bittermens and Stone Barns!)

This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending a “Grow Your Own Bitters” event at Stone Barns, hosted by Avery and Janet Glasser, the brains behind Brooklyn-based Bittermens, known for their cobalt blue glass bottles, chic label design and, of course, lovely products such as Xocolatl Mole Bitters, Habenero Hellfire Shrub and Orange Cream Citrate. And if you don’t know them, you should check out their recipe list to see which bars are serving their wares.

(Above: Some of Bittermens’s goodies)

The two hour demonstration served as both a bitters primer and a casual seminar on creating your own concoctions, complete with a group-guided creation of an entirely new flavor of bitters. Despite having been to many (many!) spirit-related classes now, it wasn’t until I heard Avery’s explanation of how bitters should actually draw out subtle elements from your base ingredients that their true potential finally clicked for me. That notion helped justify why bitters have ten, twenty or thirty ingredients in them as opposed to the soft limit of five or six when creating a cocktail.

Avery also explained that often you’ll use ingredients to lead your mind towards a particular flavor, rather than simply attempting to dump that flavor directly into your bitters extraction. For example, celery itself has little flavor but a lot of aroma, so one can use artichoke — which, like celery, is a thistle — to invoke the sensory elements associated with celery. You see a lot of this in advanced cocktail creation as well and I always find it fascinating when someone shares a direct example of how such flavor connections are made.

Primary Ingredients

So what are the ingredients that Bittermens and other producers actually use? Well, it could be lots* of things: dried citrus, coffee, cloves, true licorice, hops, cinnamon bark. Pretty much anything on the FDA’s GRAS list (and not on our warning list below) will do. But Bittermens has four ingredients they consider integral to any product labeled “bitters”:

  1. Gentian
  2. Quassia
  3. Cinchona Bark
  4. Wormwood**

* Bittermens uses an average of 22-23 ingredients per product, with a low of 17 and a peak of 30
** The Glassers source their wormwood as a distillate from a supplier in France, but those in the US should have no trouble procuring the herbs themselves

(Above: Cinchona Bark, the source of quinine)

While you need not use all of these, you’ll need at least one of them if you want to meet the Bittermens definition of “bitters”, though there are plenty of things to make without any of these, too, such as shrubs, citrates and tinctures.

Watch Out

There are a few ingredients you’re going to want to be extremely careful with or just not use at all:

  • Fat: Even with fat-washing techniques and fine-straining, oils will still remain in your product. Being fats, these oils will go rancid quickly, which can result in death. Yikes. This isn’t limited to just meat fats either, but also things like avocado, macadamia nuts and sesame seeds.
  • Tobacco: Nicotine is released into alcohol easily during extraction, which may cause serious complications for imbibers who are using high dosage nicotine patches.
  • Items with concentrations of digestive enzymes: Things like papaya, mango and pineapple have enzymes that will continue to act upon your product long after extraction, which may severe changes in flavor.
  • Nuts: Due to the large percent of the population with nut allergies, if you use nuts in your extractions you must always label your bottles accordingly; who knows who might wind up imbibing them.

(Above: Bacon is delicious, but don’t use fat extractions in your bitters!)

Infusions vs. Extractions

Avery didn’t make a huge point about differentiating between the terms “infusions” and “extractions”, but it appears to me that “infusion” is typically used to refer to infusing lower proof spirits (sub-100 proof or so) with fruit, herbs, spices and so on (e.g. vodka infused with fresh strawberries).

Extractions, on the other hand, rely on a higher proof spirit of at least 140 proof or so. Bittermens recommended the 160 proof Devil’s Springs Vodka as a good starting point and warned off using spirits that were not neutral, such as rum or whiskey, because they have additional flavors and create challenges for the aspiring alcohol alchemist.

(Above: Devil’s Spring Vodka is not gentle stuff)

Extraction Guidelines

The basic process of extraction is relatively simple: put your items-to-be-extracted in your high proof spirit (using a mason jar, for example), agitate (i.e. shake) every so often and taste regularly until the desired flavor is achieved. When you’re done, you’ll want to fine-strain through a coffee filter and/or chinois, and dilute your extraction with the appropriate amount of water (you want neutral, but don’t use distilled) so that the ethanol is not overwhelming.

How much water should you put in? Well, the math is easy enough, once you know that you’re aiming for an ABV somewhere in the 45-55% range.

In addition to this process, other extraction guidelines include:

  • The higher the proof, the faster the extraction
  • The warmer the temperature, the faster the extraction
  • The more agitation, the faster the extraction
  • Overextraction can draw out the chlorophyll character of some ingredients
  • More delicate items need ~120 proof spirit, fresh herbs (not recommended for use by Bittermens) need ~110 proof spirit and barky/woody items require 150-160 proof spirit

Stepping back for a moment, Avery also discussed two general schools of extraction. The first was the “compound” method, which involved extracting the flavors from each ingredient individually and then combining them later. This method can often produce an artificial tasting result because there’s no intermingling of flavors.

The other method (and the one the Glassers favor)  is what Avery called the “tea ball” method, where all ingredients have their flavors extracted at the same time and which produces a smoother end product. However, because some ingredients yield their flavors more quickly than others, you may opt to add them later on in the extraction process.

No matter what method you use though, it’s recommended that you start off with double the amount of ingredients you think you’ll need; after all, it’s far easier to dilute overly strong extractions than it is to dump a weak result and start over.

“Stone Barns” Bitters

We never named our group-guided bitters, but seeing as how Stone Barns was gracious enough to host us for the afternoon, it seems fitting that we name our creation after them.

And, luckily for us, we did not need to wait weeks or months for the extraction process to take place; instead, Avery and Janet brought a cream whipper to do flash extraction using NO2.* They mentioned they use the whipper to do quick prototyping of new flavors and from my past experience iSi’s soda siphon, I can attest to its efficacy.

* For those of you curious about how NO2 extractions work, you can imagine it like this: the NO2 is forced into the ingredients, creating channels through which the oils are later released when the NO2 is vented from the cream whipper

(Above: Stone Barns Bitters)

Here’s what we used:

  • Gentian: 8g
  • Quassia: 1g
  • Wormwood: 5ml of the Glassers’s distillate (can substitute with 5g of herbs)
  • Cinnamon Chips: 6g (can get a high quality stick and break it up)
  • Coffee Beans: 8g
  • Cloves: 2 cloves
  • Cardamom: 3g
  • Cherry Bark: 6g (we used a lot here because it is typically slow in extractions)
  • Ginger: 6g (this acted as a “rounding out” note; dehydrated / cut and sifted)
  • Peppercorns: 1g
  • Rhubarb: 5g
  • Serrano Pepper: 1 pepper dried, with seeds
  • 160 proof Vodka: 750ml
  • 3 NO2 cartridges (we actually used four due to a venting issue), shaking in between each
  • 200ml of water for dilution afterwards

And to conclude our class, Avery and Janet gave everyone samples of their Burlesque Bitters, which you can find featured at Neta in their Shibui Cocktail. Even without this act of generosity, I’m sure the Glassers won over many new fans that day with their welcoming attitude, in-depth instruction and heartfelt passion for what they do.

Here’s hoping they keep the class circuit up for those of us who really geek out over this stuff!

Looking to buy ingredients to make your own bitters? Check out Dual’s Speciality Store and Kalustyan’s.
Want to pick up some Bittermens? Either order online or visit The Meadow.

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