What Are Bitters Made Of?
As the name suggests, bitters are composed of one or several central bittering agents and other botanicals that offer additional flavour and complexity. The ingredients are infused and suspended in an alcoholic solution, which preserves them.
As you’ll learn in our main guide, they were initially produced as herbal remedies and the flavour wasn’t the priority. Yet, as people began developing a taste for them, the beverages started to evolve.
Below, we present a selection of different ingredients, which may be used for making bitters.
As mentioned above, bitters may consist of just one or several bittering agents. These potent botanicals are the backbone of the beverage and produce its overall character:
- Quassia Bark
- Gentian Root
- Cinchona (Quinine) Root
- Bitter Orange Peel
- Wild Cherry Bark
- Liquorice Root
- Dandelion Root
- Burdock Root
- Black Walnut Leaf
- Angelica Root
Different bittering agents tend to offer unique health benefits, which is why they were originally chosen. Bitters will opt for various quantities and sometimes they feature one main ingredient with other bittering agents in smaller amounts.
Since bittering agents are unpalatable on their own, apothecaries and pharmacists of the time would add other ingredients to reduce their prominence. These often had other health benefits but would also distract from the overwhelming bitterness.
Arguably, the sky’s the limit when choosing other ingredients, but the following herbs and spices are regularly found in bitters:
- Ginger Root
- Juniper Berries
- Star Anise
- Lemon Balm
- Bay Laurel
- Tonka Beans
- Cacao Nibs
- Sweet & Sour Citrus Peels
- Caramel, Sugar, or Molasses
If you’ve seen Mary Poppins, then you’ll know that a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down. Well, the medicine referenced in the song was likely some form of curative bitters.
At the time, sugar and its byproducts were expensive. Indeed, it was one of the grievances in the Americas that resulted in the USA declaring its independence. Therefore, some producers wouldn’t include sweeteners in their bitters.
As time went on, caramel or molasses were added to bitters and even became a characteristic flavouring agent.
Do Bitters Go Bad?
As you know, bitters ingredients are infused and suspended in an alcoholic solution, which acts as a natural preservative. Originally, the alcohol used consisted of wine but with the discovery of distillation, which is more effective at preserving perishable ingredients, neutral spirits became more popular.
Typically, modern cocktail bitters only use neutral grain or beet spirit alcohol. However, some digestive bitters continue to use wine, which may also be fortified with another alcohol.
On some occasions, wine-based digestive bitters are also barrel-aged, which adds complexity but the oxidative ageing process also strengthens its shelf life.
Wine-based digestive bitters like vermouth do eventually go sour once opened, even though they have been fortified and barrel-aged. Although they don’t exactly go bad, they’ll lose their clarity, flavour, and eventually, become unpleasant to drink.
Meanwhile, spirit-based bitters with an ABV of 30% or above will take far longer to expire. The greater the alcoholic content, the longer they will last.
A typical 40% ABV bottle of bitters won’t lose its flavour for over a decade once opened. Unopened, it could arguably last a lifetime. Again, though, it will unlikely expire but simply lose its flavour, especially if stored somewhere warm and exposed to too much UV light.
How Are Digestive & Cocktail Bitters Made?
Generally speaking, both digestive and cocktail bitters follow a very similar manufacturing process. Therefore, we’re going to explore how they’re made together. Occasionally, we’ll mention it when either one has a distinguishing technique.
Bear in mind that there are hundreds of bitters on the market. The distinction between cocktail and digestive bitters is important but an oversimplification. In Europe, there are many different regional styles in several countries like France, Germany, Italy, and even elsewhere.
The vast majority of bitters brands won’t make the alcohol themselves. In most cases, it will be purchased from other producers so they can focus on the blending and any additional ageing processes.
Otherwise, the botanicals are typically imported and only occasionally sourced locally. After all, they’re often exotic spices from all around the world.
Bitters brands often source them separately and some even allegedly have agreements with customs for their ingredients not to be inspected in order to preserve the secret recipe.
The proper quantities of herbs and spices are then prepared before being mechanically crushed into small pieces. These are introduced to the alcohol to macerate over a fixed period of time.
Steeping The Ingredients
If wine is used as the base alcohol, it is often briefly aged and fortified beforehand. Otherwise, neutral spirits are typically clear, unaged, and above 90% ABV. Most cocktail bitters producers macerate their botanicals in steel tanks. Meanwhile, digestive bitters are usually steep in large oak barrels.
In both cases, techniques are employed to keep the botanicals moving so that they continue to infuse in the alcohol.
Artisanal producers may do this by manually or even mechanically rolling and rotating the barrels. Conversely, steel tanks may use percolation whereby the tanks are drained and then the alcohol is poured back in onto the botanicals.
Once the process has completed, the alcohol is pressed or filtered from the botanicals. Beverages like gin would be distilled again, but in this case, it removes the desired flavours.
The bitters are usually left to rest in clean tanks before being hydrated to the desired alcoholic strength and then bottled for distribution.
DIY Homemade Cocktail Bitters Recipe
The process of making your own bitters is deceptively easy and it’s not unlike limoncello aside from a few additional steps. Nevertheless, it does require a certain level of patience between each process.
The real challenge, however, is finding the right balance of the aforementioned ingredients according to your tastes.
In this recipe, we’ll give you a template that you can follow but then customise in the future according to the flavour profile you wish to create. For instance, you may want the pungent liquorice character of Angostura one time or a citrus fruit tartness of Peychaud’s another.
Homemade Bitters Ingredients
- 1 Tbsp Gentian Root
- 1 Tbsp Sarsaparilla
- 1 Tbsp Quassia Bark
- 2 Tsp Caraway Seeds
- 3 Tsp Dried Orange Peel
- 2 Tsp Coriander Seeds
- 1 Tsp Cardamom Seeds
- 2 Star Anise
- 1 Bay Leaf
- 1 Cinnamon Stick
- 200g (7 Oz) Sugar or Molasses
- 500 ml (17 Fl Oz) Neutral Alcohol
- 500 ml (17 Fl Oz) Distilled or Mineral Water
- 3 Litre (1 Quart) Mason Jars
Not all of these ingredients will be that easy to find in a local grocery store or supermarket. In some cases, you might have to visit an apothecary, a health shop or similar.
As explained in the opening of this guide, bitters typically centre around bittering agents with several additional ingredients that alter the overall flavour. You can focus on a single bittering agent or combine a few of them, like we did, depending on the result that you wish to produce.
If you wish to deviate from this recipe, head to the list at the beginning of this guide for some inspiration.
Meanwhile, you’ll be steeping your ingredients in alcohol. You’ll want something strong of at least 50% ABV, but 70% would be better, which might be hard to find in some places. Similarly, opt for neutral alcohol so it doesn’t impart any flavour. Vodka is fine in a pinch but the stronger the better.
Conversely, you might choose flavoursome alcohol like gin or rum so it does add an extra touch of complexity. Nevertheless, remember that you’ll be ultimately mixing it with other spirits!
Finally, white granulated sugar is absolutely fine as a sweetener. However, you can instead opt for molasses, which will have more character. Don’t feel that you have to use it all and reduce the amount if you want really bitter bitters.
Step 1. Steep The Botanicals
Add all of your desired herbs and spices to the mason jar and top up with the alcohol. If the spices or herbs aren’t already powdered or similar, break them up first with a knife or a mortar and pestle.
Close the mason jar and shake it vigorously to get the ingredients to start infusing. You’ll now need to leave them in a cool or dark place like a pantry or basement for 20 days. During that time, shake the jar vigorously once a day to ensure that they keep infusing.
You can leave them for longer if you prefer a deeper flavour. Meanwhile, if you’re in a hurry, it can be done for less. However, the resulting taste won’t be as pronounced.
Step 3. Straining & Water Bitters
Once the ingredients have steeped for long enough, strain them with a cheesecloth, dishcloth, or coffee filter into a second jar. Try to squeeze as much liquid out as possible without any sediment getting into your new jar.
Muddle the botanicals and then add them to a saucepan with the water and bring to a boil. The amount of water that you use should use depends on the alcohol.
If you managed to find a strong 70% ABV spirit, use the full amount. Otherwise, if you’re working with 40% vodka or similar, use just enough water to cover the ingredients that don’t float.
Once boiling, cover the saucepan and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the mixture back into the first mason jar. Seal both jars and let them rest for at least 5 days in the pantry again. Shake the water mixture once a day so it can continue steeping.
Step 4. Bringing It Together
Combine the alcohol and water to bring the final alcoholic strength to between 40% and 50% ABV. If you use little water in the previous step, you won’t lose too much flavour here. Meanwhile, if you didn’t have enough, feel free to add more now.
If you wish to sweeten your bitters, add the sugar to a saucepan and whisk until it becomes a dark brown caramel. Let it cool until it’s only slightly warm but still runny and then pour it into the bitters mixture. Periodically stir the bitters and taste it to make sure it isn’t too sweet for you.
If using molasses, you can pour it directly into the bitters. Alternatively, you can warm the bitters and molasses up slightly in a saucepan so they dissolve more easily. Avoid bringing it to a boil, though!
Once finished, strain the final mixture through a cheesecloth or coffee filter into a bottle. You can use another clean mason jar or a decorative bottle. Remember that this stuff is quite strong so you might want to buy some small medicine bottles with droppers for when serving it!
Now that you have learned how to make bitters, discover more of our related resources!