In the spirit of “like cures like,” an antidote to winter's darkness and bitter cold just might be bitters—the aromatic type, that is. Bitters are a liquid seasoning made of flavorful herbs, spices and more. In the 1700s bitters were used as a medicinal tonic, but by the nineteenth century bitters became a wildly popular ingredient in a new kind of drink called the cocktail, and there were hundreds of types and brands. With the onset of Prohibition in 1920, bitters, along with much of bartending culture, was wiped out almost completely—surviving only in the form of Angostora bitters and a couple of regional brands.
It's been almost 100 years, but bitters are back! They have been resurrected by artisanal and D-I-Y cocktail geeks, and there are dozens of small batch varieties being invented and sold.
There's an easy and hilarious test you can do determine your tastiness IQ. You need some blue food coloring or red wine or grape juice, a small piece of paper with a standard-size binder hole punched out, and a mirror, camera or friend. Swish the colored liquid in your mouth and swallow or spit. Use the hole of the paper to frame a tiny circle of the front of your tongue. The pink bumps are where your taste buds live, they are called fungiform papillae. If you count more than 35, you are a super-taster, less than 15 and you are a non-taster.
Adding bitterness to a highly flavored drink or dish is a way of contrasting and balancing richness or sweetness that would be cloying otherwise. Some chefs think of it as a “cleansing” taste that triggers the desire to imbibe more. In fact, traditionally, bitters have been used as a digestif to settle the stomach after a large meal.
Bitters turn out to be surprisingly easy to make. Basically, soak aromatic plant material in alcohol until it becomes infused with the plants' flavor and aroma. Commercial bitters are typically a blend of a dozen or more ingredients, from the common, like lemon zest and cinnamon, to more exotic substances like grains of paradise and devil's club root.
Emboldened by those crazy ingredient lists, and being a yardavore, I set out to make bitters with locally grown ingredients, both cultivated and foraged. I collected the thyme, lovage, rosemary, fennel seed, lemon verbena, lemon grass, chocolate mint, and bay leaf, roots of dandelion, sassafras, burdock, barberry and wild ginger, bark of cherry and sweet birch trees, needles of spruce, berries of juniper and hips of roses.
I bought a bottle of strong vodka (you want at least 100 proof) and a case of small mason jars. I put about 1/3 cup of each flavoring ingredient in each jar, labeled them, and then filled them with vodka. The flavors and scents of green herbs take only a few hours to be drawn out by the alcohol, but roots can take a couple of weeks. The alcohol is very strong and the best ways to taste the tinctures is to mix a couple of drops in a little water. When a solution seems strong enough, filter it through a fine screen or a couple of layers of cheesecloth. These will be the basis of mixed bitters.
Here are several combinations that we invented, one snowy afternoon:
Evergreen Bitters: spruce, smoked cedar, rosemary, sweet birch, cinnamon, burdock root.
Tropical Bitters: wild ginger, lemon verbena, red pepper, barberry root, rose hips.
Summer Bitters: lemon verbena, dandelion root, lemon grass, rose hips, lovage, fennel, hops.
Bitters make nice gifts - to package them, choose a bottle with a small neck, and if you like, add a shaker cap (plastic screw-on or cork and spout). Create your own traditional looking label with at least several award seals, a flourishy signature (I've used the Pope's), and feature a phrase like, “By Appointment to my Beloved Aunt Martha.” Fill in any left over blank space with fine print, perhaps your own life philosophy, or a rant of some sort (think Dr. Bronners...).
Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist, Algonquin Books
Jerry Thomas, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant's Companion, 1862
Brad Thomas Parsons, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, Ten-Speed Press
Field Apothecary and Herb Farm, Germantown, NY: Hudson Valley grown and made medicinal bitters
Dandelion Botanical Company: exotic herbs and spices