A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

The Bitter Beginning

by Maria Reidelbach    

Part of the fun of the winter holidays is the frenzy of making presents for my friends. This time of year, the best gifts warm the soul and the heart.

Use homemade bitters to make a Sinterklaas Sling. Photo by 
Maria Reidelbach.
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 in the 19th century bitters became a wildly popular ingredient in a new kind of drink called the cocktail, and there were hundreds of flavors 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 in the making, but bitters are back! They have been resurrected by artisanal and DIY (do-it-yourself) cocktail geeks. Now there are dozens of small batch varieties being invented and sold.

But why, oh why, would you want to add bitterness to create a delicious drink? The art and science of this tradition is quite interesting. We have taste buds that can discern five different flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). We are the most sensitive to bitter, probably because it is the flavor of toxic alkaloids in plants.

But it turns out that not all tongues are created equal—the ability to taste varies dramatically from person to person. Scientist Linda Bartoshuk discovered that about 25% us are “supertasters” and 25% are “non-tasters,” with the other half of us somewhere in the middle. Supertasters are much more sensitive to bitterness and are usually pickier eaters than the rest of us, and often eat less, too, since they are sensually sated more quickly. There’s an easy and hilarious test you can do determine your tastiness IQ. You need some blue food coloring, red wine, or grape juice; a small piece of paper with a standard-size binder hole punch; and a mirror, camera, or friend. Swish the colored liquid in your mouth. 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. Count these to figure out where you lie on the spectrum. Between 15 and 35 makes an average taster, and more is a super-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, you soak aromatic plant material in alcohol until it becomes infused with the plants flavor and aroma. Commercial bitters typically are a blend of a dozen or more ingredients, from the common—like lemon zest and cinnamon—to the more exotic substances—like grains of paradise and devil’s club root.

Emboldened by those crazy ingredient lists, and in true yardavore fashion, 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, bay leaf, roots of dandelion, sassafras, burdock, barberry and wild ginger, bark of cherry and sweet birch trees, spruce needles, juniper berries, and rose hips.

I bought a big bottle of strong vodka (you want at least 100 proof) and a case of cup-sized 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. They are very strong and the best ways to taste them is either to mix a couple of drops in a spoon of water, or dip a toothpick. When an infusion seems strong enough, filter it through a fine screen or a couple of layers of cheesecloth.

Homemade bitters during the infusion process. 
Photo by Maria Reidelbach.
On to some tasty and festive cocktails. The archetypal cocktail is made of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. Endless variations and elaborations are possible. The drink is then named and served in a distinctive glass. The Old-Fashioned is a perfect example—rye whiskey or bourbon, sugar, and bitters, served over ice in an old-fashioned glass with orange or lemon peel twist. Although a mixologist (master bartender) raises cocktails to an art form, even a rank amateur can have lots of fun.

I put together a laboratory of ingredients: bourbon, rye, rum, whisky, sparkling wine, hard cider and tequila; simple syrup, maple syrup, and honey; water, ice, and citrus fruit. The basic gear needed is eye droppers, stirring sticks, a shot glass, straws (for tasting others’ drinks), a paring knife, a variety of glasses from small to medium. Tiny umbrellas are fun, too! (There are all kinds of swanky and specialized bar tools out there if you desire.)

I invited some pals over to get creative. One way to concoct a cocktail is to start with about a shot of the base alcohol in a large glass, add a sweetener to taste, then add drops of bitters while tasting often. A little bit of water, ice, or mixer helps hard liquor flavors to bloom. When you are satisfied, pour your drink into a glass of choice and garnish as desired.

To package your bitters for gift-giving, 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’m using the Pope’s), and a highfalutin phrase like, “By Appointment to my Beloved Aunt Martha.” For extra fun, include a drink recipe with an inventive name—vintage alternatives to “cocktail” include smash, toddy, fizz, cobbler, sling, sour, flip, fix, punch, crusta, nectar, and shrub. Fill in any left over blank space with fine print, perhaps your own life philosophy, or a rant of some sort (think Dr. Bronners…).

Below are several of our best combinations.
Evergreen Bitters: spruce, smoked cedar, rosemary, sweet birch, cinnamon, burdock root.
Tropical Bitters: wild ginger, lemon verbena, red pepper, barberry, rose hips.
Summer Bitters: lemon verbena, dandelion root, lemon grass, rose hips, lovage, fennel, hops.
Sinterklaas Sling: 1 jigger bourbon, 1 tsp. maple syrup, several dashes of evergreen bitters, to taste. Stir and serve in a coupe glass over fresh snow or finely crushed ice with a spruce twig.
Arctic Antidote: 1 jigger white rum, 1 tsp brown sugar, Tropical Bitters to taste. Serve in an old-fashioned glass on the rocks with a twist of lemon.
Stonykill Skinny Dip: 6 oz. sparkling wine, ½ tsp honey, 1 tsp elder flower syrup, Summer Bitters to taste. Serve in a champagne flute with a flower.

Sources:
Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist, Algonquin Books
Jerry Hall, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, 1862, Google books
Brad Thomas Parsons: Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, Ten-Speed Press
Field Apothecary and Herb Farm, Germantown, NY: locally grown and made medicinal bitters
Dandelion Botanical Company: exotic herbs and spices
Cheers! to my fellow explorers: Chef David Work, Christie Cruz, Stuart Reitz, Rosanne Percivalle, Nancy Cobb, Pam Kray, Doug Grunther, Larry Silver and Michael Swift.

Maria Reidelbach is an author and applied artist who lives, works, and imbibes in Accord, NY. Contact her at m@mariareidelbach.com.