Every good barmen knows cocktail bitters are the salt and pepper to their concoctions. Used to add depth and complexity of flavour to cocktails, bitters are necessary to every bar. Peychaud’s is an excellent standard. Angosturra and soda is an age old combination to alleviate an upset stomach. However, the modern cocktail pantry can extend well beyond these into unique flavos such as black walnut and aztec chocolate bitters.
Fee brothers bitters are made just east of Buffalo in Rochester, NY. They provide a unique expanse of products available. A simple sazerac (a rye cocktail with sugar, bitters, and absinthe) gets a light citrus note when splitting the standard cocktail bitters with their orange bitters and garnishing with a squeezed orange rind. I love their black walnut bitters in a rye manhattan with punt e mes and carpano antica vermouths.
These are relatively simple connections you can make in your home bar. But why limit ingredients to one realm or the other. Working with barman Tony Rials, I gained exposure and knowledge of all sorts of tinctures, shrubs, bitters, and amaris. In savory dishes, I have poached salmon gently in genever. Genever is the new amserdam style gin, which i found to have more grain flavour and character. The poached fish had a slight hint of gin with the dish being rounded out with smoked creme fraiche, pickles, and a green juniper berry chip. In another example of the bar program crossing over to the kitchen he introduced me to rabarbaro. This rubarb based amaro was rich and bitter, with its dark color coming from its rhubarb base. I played with the amaro in a scallop dish with vanilla, grapefruit, and fennel. Simply sweetening and dehydrating the amaro turned it into a delightful transparent chip. The lure of the possibilities of what the bar held peaked my curiosity, and my palate.
Lately I’ve been wandering around outside, cutting trees, smelling branches. I loved the smell of the spruce trees. Their long green needles reminded me of rosemary. I recalled a conversation with my sister, begging me to take some of her rosemary home with me from her garden. I was finding the herb too aggressive for my liking in the traditional aspects. Roasting some beef and basting it with her rosemary and garlic seemed like a nice dinner at home. So thinking of that similar look and vague smell connection, I grabbed a piece of the branch and brought it home. I blanched the needles only, not the branch, for three minutes and shocked them in ice water. Pureed in a high speed blender for 10 or so minutes with enough grapeseed oil to cover produced a green oil that smelled of christmas trees. Turning the oven on high temperature and scrubbing baby carrots, my mind was racing with ideas. I needed something somewhat sweet, bitter, and acidic. A slow turn back to my home bar brought orange bitters straight to mind. It was the perfect compliment to the roasted carrot all along. A simple vinaigrette style sauce with the orange bitters, juice, and spruce oil started me on a journey that I have yet to see an end. Their usefullness in the savory kitchen can season sauces just as they are used in cocktails. Deglazing pans, hit on a hot plate to perfume a dish just as it hits the table, adding that je ne sais qua.
When my mind starts moving, it quickly turns to tiny bursts in many alleys. Essentially cocktail bitters are highly concentrated alcoholic solutions that are flavoured to fit one’s tastes. Bittering agents can be citrus zest, roots, branches, or seeds. The flavoring is largely up to you. Making cocktail bitters at home I have found quite easy. I also have a random smattering of odd herbs and spices that little to anyone’s home kithen will or should replicate. The base for most bitters is grain alcohol, infused with flavors and bittering agents allowed to sit in a dark corner to develop flavour. Most are then diluted and seasoned with sugar, and strained. High proof bourbon or other alcohol can also be used.
So because making home bitters and using them in savory applications isn’t where my mind stops, my mind switched to aging. Barrel aging can make a whiskey more nuanced and gentler. Aging wines produces a similar effect. Tony and my friend James Roberts barrel age cocktails recreationally at home with splendid results, so why not bitters? However most barrels have a capacity of 5-10L and I was producing less that 1L of esoteric bitters. When you can’t bring something to your goal, bring the goal to something. The solution was simply toasting a piece of barrel used to make bourbon, breaking it up for more surface area, and steeping that in my bitters with wonderful results.
I know my thinking isn’t how most minds work. But with an open mind and a curious palate, a home pantry can be expanded exponentially with a whole new frontier of flavour. Happy experimenting.
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