Now when first experimenting in this area it seems quite simple, a few vanilla pods in some sugar syrup and Tada! Vanilla Gomme. Chuck a few Earl grey tea bags in gin, and voila tea infused gin. Yet the more we experiment the more we learn about balancing the ingredients to get the exact flavour we want and how to use them to enhance flavours of cocktails.
Any good bartender knows there are many bitters you can buy and a few notable companies are Angostura, Fee Brothers and Bittermens. All respectably have an extensive range and work wonderfully when enhancing flavours already present in spirits.
Angostura is the infamous one, seen in shops and supermarkets worldwide. The label is too big for the little brown bottle with a yellow lid. Add it to sugar and whiskey and stir with ice for an Old Fashioned. Chuck it in with rum, lime and ginger beer for a Dark and Stormy. A couple of drops even livens up a lime and soda, it really is that versatile.
At this time of year Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters goes in just about everything for me, as it adds a winter warming spice. Anything with chocolate flavours and Bittermens Xcolotl bitters adds that bitter-sweetness that usually only really dark chocolate can impart.
When there’s easily available, ready-made, perfectly brilliant products there for the taking (sorry, purchasing), then why would we bother creating our own? The answer is simple; it’s a massively useful tool to have at your disposal when creating cocktails, even if it takes a few goes to get exactly what you’re looking for.
The difference between the two is pretty simple.
An infusion is one or several flavours added to the base spirit of a cocktail in low concentrations. So basically a little flavour added and a lot of alcohol used.
A bitters is a blend of flavours added to an alcohol with a high ABV in a high concentration. So a lot of flavour added and a little alcohol used. Bitters generally are a blend of different ingredients, if it’s just a simple single flavour then we would use the term tincture.
A few tips and tricks.
Sample a small batch first as this will give you the chance to try it within a couple of hours and without ruining a large amount of alcohol if it doesn’t go according to plan.
Taste it little and often, different flavours extract into the alcohol at varying rates. Things like tea’s and citrus will impart flavour quickly but will slowly release tannins and bitter components and can easily over infuse, whereas fresh spices and herbs will take longer.
When making bitters, experiment with different amounts of flavours, you will find that you prefer one more then others. Maybe one with extra citrus peel, maybe one with more cloves, one with more tea or whatever it is your experimenting with.
Always write your recipes down and label your different experiments. You will kick yourself if you find the version you like best but can’t remember how you made it.
When infusing alcohol be aware that the higher the ABV the quicker it will happen and the more bitter flavours are extracted easier.
There’s a lot of infusions that we’ve tried over the last couple of years, hibiscus and pink peppercorn vodka, dill gin, honeycomb bourbon to name a few but it’s the bitters which are much more interesting.
There’s a couple that we’ve spent a long time perfecting and have now been using ever since.
Bloody Bitters perfect for Bloody Mary’s.
Half a fresh horseradish sliced into very thin strips.
A whole yellow pepper, sliced.
4 tablespoons of mustard seeds.
2 teaspoons of smoked paprika.
2 teaspoons of black peppercorns.
Steeped in about 600ml spiritus for 3 days and drained. Spiritus is a very high ABV neutral grain spirit and if you use it then it will only need to steep for 3 days and only a couple of drops are needed. If you can’t get spiritus then a vodka will do the same but leave it to infuse for a week and add 5 or 6 drops per drink.
Spiced Citrus Bitters.
Peels of 3 limes, 2 lemons and an orange. 2 tablespoons of cloves, 5 whole star anise, 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns and a cinnamon stick broken apart.
Steep in 300ml of overproof rum (wray and nephew is what we use) for 3 days.
These bitters are great in a Dark and Stormy along with Angustura bitters or in a fresh pineapple and spiced rum old fashioned.