A bitters experiment

Making bitters has been a funny enterprise from the start. I don’t really do cocktails. But the idea of something that would take weeks to mature appealed.

There was certainly no rush about it. I was reading recipes and looking for ingredients for months before I began.

Step One – bitters recipes

Recipes I found online had a theme – woodsy-vanilla, lavender, strawberry, Christmas-y. I read a million of ’em – people are wacky for this home project right now. But I couldn’t find most of the true bitters-bitters ingredients, that would have made the “bass note” – the true bitterness at the heart of this thing. These include Chinchona bark, juniper berries, and gentian root. I had a line on the last two here in Tunisia – where they are actually grown, but not sold domestically – but they told me I couldn’t get them till harvest, after Ramadan. I decided to front-burner this bitters experiment with what I had.

It being springtime in Tunis, with citrus fruits rolling out of trucks and carpeting the streets, I used grapefruit, blood orange and lemon peels. The last came from my friend’s tree! Carefully scraping off the outermost part of the peel and then drying it in the oven made my base.

I added bits and pieces from a range of recipes (here, here and here), because no one recipe’s ingredients were all available. So I ended up with several tablespoons of dried citrus peel, a couple of cinnamon sticks, a vanilla bean pod with the seeds scraped, a few cloves, a couple of pokey broken star anise pods, some peppercorns, a knuckle of ginger, and a healthy handful of hibiscus flower petals. As mentioned in the last post, that all steeps in the highest alcohol content booze you can find for fifteen days. I used a sort of a mason jar, the one with the Grolsch-beer-type lid. Store the jar in a dark place (i just put a towel over it.)

The BEST part of this whole process is that every day you have to shake the jar “vigorously”. I did so with relish, with abandon, with gusto – and I did it more than once per day. I won’t tell you my exact numbers – bittersmakers’ trade secret – but suffice it to say I tallied them on a piece of birch bark using an Indian Paintbrush dipped in liquified gold.

And yes, that is my bathroom. I was determined not to forget to shake it, and tooth brushing seemed the most opportune moment.


Step Two – KC and the Sunshine Band would approve

Strain out the steeped liquor and then smash all these ingredients as best you can. I have no mortar and pestle (something I intend to remedy in my upcoming trip to the US) so I used a jar from the cupboard. Things did not get smashed all that well, but I poured four cups of water over that, boiled it for 7 minutes, then steeped that for five days. Shake shake shake, shake shake shake, shake your goo-tea, shake your goo-tea, awww.


Step Three – the sweetness at the bottom of the bitters

However much of the alcohol you came up with when you strained, put in that same amount of the goo-tea steeped water. Save the rest of the water, if any, in case you want to cut the strength of the bitters later. Now is the really wacky part. Put something like a cup of sugar – regular white granulated sugar – into a small sauce pan. Turn on the heat and start stirring. In a couple minutes it starts to stickify (bittersmakers’ lingo) and then a couple minutes more and it’s a toasty brown liquid. Do not stop stirring that whole time.

Turn off the heat and immediately pour that caramel into the jar with the liquor-steeped water mix. It will harden and look like brown candy. Don’t worry. You get to shake for five more days; that stuff will dissolve. Scrape out the pan with a spatula as best you can and get it into the jar, then wash that pan as fast as humanly possible, with the hottest water you can stand. It’s a nasty piece of work and if you don’t get it out of the pan while it’s still mostly liquid, you’ll regret it.

Five more days of shaking. Will this joy never end?


Step Four – Bitterready

Five days later this is the slightly cloudy, rouge-y red result. It’s time to practice Amateur Bartendry, and I’m just the unpracticed scamp to give it a try.

Tita and Li’l Bitters home brew

Now you just have to come up with a recipe for a cocktail, and probably best if you’ve got someone to drink it with, because they’re so yummy you risk getting sodding drunk alone. I had a wee party, ordered Lebanese kebabs and hummus and stuff, and my friends Ashley and Lisa and Lisa’s two kids and their little dog, too, all came over. It is by far the most boisterous this apartment has been in over a year – it felt like I was inside a jet engine. In a good way. There was a saxophone involved. you cannot make this stuff up.

Here’s what we made – and I honestly couldn’t pick between the two, as they were both delish and combined perfectly with Lebanese finger food:

The Said and Done

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • .5 oz lemon juice
  • piece of fresh ginger
  • .5 oz simple syrup
  • 2 dashes bitters (HA! I didn’t go through all that to use this stuff 2 dashes at a time. Plus my bottle doesn’t do dashes. I put in two very healthy splurts.)

Now that I am typing this up, I see I didn’t follow the recipe. You’re supposed to muddle the ginger first (oops) then pour in the other stuff with ice and top with a splash of soda water (didn’t do that either). I seem to have gotten the alcohol part right since… well, let’s say we just knew.

The Seelbach

  • 1 oz bourbon
  • .5 oz orange juice
  • 14 dashes bitters (Now we’re talking!)
  • 5 ounces sparkling wine
  • Orange twist

For this one you mix the first three in a tumbler, pour it over ice, and top it up with champers.

They paired even better with the chocolate fondue Lisa brought for dessert. Frankly, you could have bopped any of us on the head with a mallet at that point and we would have cheered how well a mallet head bop went with these drinks. What fun!!!

P.S. No, we did not give the children alcohol. We gave them loads of guacamole instead! We ate it so fast I didn’t even get a picture of it.

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