How to make bitters
Don’t let the name put you off. Infusing alcohol with botanicals is easy and delicious
By Scot Morison, ’80 BSc(Spec). Photo by John Ulan.
“It’s like a spice rack for bartenders.”
That’s how Keenan Pascal, ’08 BCom, describes bitters, the subtle but essential ingredient of classics like the old‑fashioned or the manhattan, not to mention many trendy new cocktails.
Bitters were popular in the 19th century and were considered to have medicinal properties. Today, bartenders use a dash or two to enhance and add complexity to a drink’s flavours.
Pascal and his partners — chemical engineer Cam O’Neil and Jamie Shtay — founded Token Bitters in 2016 in Edmonton. With the help of food scientist Mario Castillo Picon, ’18 BSc(Nutr/Food), the company produces eight flavours of bitters for liquor stores and bars: cherry, orange, lavender, chai, wild rose almond, hops and hemp, mocha and cedar.
Making bitters involves the chemical process of infusion using a solvent, a combination of plant materials and a bittering agent. Though Pascal and his partners hope you’ll give Token Bitters a try, he says it’s not hard to make bitters at home.
Choose a solvent. A neutral grain alcohol like Everclear works best. Vodka will also work but it takes longer to distil the botanicals.
Select your botanicals. Feel free to experiment with any combination of plant materials; it’s really just a matter of taste. The usual proportion ranges from 0.25 to 1.0 gram of botanical per millilitre of alcohol, depending on the intensity of the plant matter. Clove is strong, for instance, so you need less. Cherry is subtle, so you need more.
Add some gentian root. The herb, traditionally used as a digestive and health aid, adds a slight bitter taste. (Hence, the name “bitters.”) You can buy it at spice markets.
Bundle the botanicals and gentian root together in a mesh bag.
Let the botanical mix soak in the solvent in a sealed container for at least a month. Longer makes it stronger.
Decant the liquid (gradually pour it from one container into another without disturbing the sediment) and store it in an airtight container away from direct light. It doesn’t need refrigeration and lasts indefinitely.
Use as directed in classic cocktails or in new ones you invent.
Vieux Carre Cocktail
20 ml (¾ oz.) vermouth
20 ml (¾ oz.) cognac
20 ml (¾ oz.) rye whisky
One teaspoon of Benedictine liqueur
Dash of Token Bitters cherry
Dash of Peychaud’s Bitters
Add all ingredients in a large mixing glass. Add ice and stir. Pour into ice-filled cocktail glass. Add a twist of lemon or orange and garnish with cherries or cranberries.
For more cocktail ideas, check out tokenbitters.com.