December 2009 Archives

On Bitters
By Lydia on December 23, 2009 9:20 PM| | Comments (0)
Bitter wind, bitter ex, bitter medicine. I understand the general unpleasantness this word invokes, and as a cynical Michigander, I often agree. But as one of the small pantheon of flavors detectable by the human taste bud, I embrace bitterness for that very reason. We are too often so careful making everything pleasant, we forget the intoxicating joy of balance. Unmitigated sweetness is just as much a palate-killer as fat or spice, and sometimes it takes a jolt of something bitter to wake up the senses and enliven the meal. The recent explosion of craft brewing suggests Americans are ready for something more challenging in their highballs, and handmade bitters might be just the way to add a dash of interest.

Bitters, a class of alcoholic flavorings, were originally sold as medicines. The botanicals they were infused with purportedly cured all sorts of things, though most likely the only thing making buyers feel better was the high alcohol content. Commercial bitters today top out at 90 proof, or 45% alcohol by volume. They are used mainly in very small quantities to add zest to mixed drinks like Manhattans and Sazeracs. Pre-prohibition they were quite fashionable, with hundreds of different brands on the market. Today only a couple are easily available: Christmas-spiced Agnostura, and lighter Peychaud's.

Bitters' unpopularity has resulted in a dearth of references. Even on the internet, recipes are unavailable or archaic, with so many variables and unknowns they satisfy only one's historical interest. Still, the basic method is simple: an infusion, or soaking the flavorings in alcohol. The liquor must have quite a high alcohol content both to speed the infusion process and insure a shelf-stable product. Vodka, rye and brandy are all possibilities. To ensure balance, infuse the bittering agent and the flavoring agent separately. In my house, that means a line-up of mason jars in various stages of murkiness and color.

There are three great variables in bitters-making; liquor, flavor, and bitter. The liquor was an easy choice. For simplicity, Everclear was a winner. I decided to make a straightforward orange bitters, the most common kind available, so I might accurately judge my bootleg against a commercial product. My flavoring compound was a combination of orange zest, dried bitter orange, fennel seed and honey.

Many flora are bitter, but I was looking not only for flavor, but intrigue. Few plants have a more mystical aura than wormwood. Used to make absinthe, wormwood has been blamed for craziness since before Van Gogh cut off an ear. It was so shrouded in myth that absinthe was only recently legalized in the U.S.

After over two weeks of shaking mason jars, I strained both tinctures through coffee filters. The wormwood mixture was acid green and evil looking, the orange oddly viscous. Mixed to taste and diluted, my bitters had a powerful aroma of orange and upon tasting, just a hint of anise. Though overall a winner, I may be more exited about the pomegranate-ginger-cardamom mix currently steeping deep within my cupboards.