As a cocktail obsessive — er, enthusiast — I want to understand and appreciate each and every ingredient I put into my mixed drinks. High-quality booze goes a long way towards creating a balanced, delicious cocktail, but adding syrups and flavorings can also help elevate a standard pour to something you’ll remember, even after a drink or three.
One of the most potent sources of flavor found in a cocktail comes in the form of bitters, those concentrated, high-alcohol mixtures infused with herbs, spices, fruits and flowers: just a dash or two brings balance to a drink and tempers any extra sweetness. Bright red, cookie-spiced Angostura bitters — often added to a Manhattan — and New Orleans-produced, anise-scented Peychaud’s bitters —essential to that city’s famous Sazerac — are among the most well-known of bitters, but bitters are incredibly adaptable and can be made with a wide variety of ingredients. And although these mixtures of dried roots, leaves and barks seem exotic, bitters are actually quite simple to prepare at home.
It all starts with those botanicals, ingredients once found in apothecaries such as wormwood, sarsaparilla and cinchona: these “bittering agents” are what bring a strong, almost medicinal bite to cocktail bitters. You can order them online, or, if you live in New York City, do like I do and visit Kalustyan’s, that imported-foods megastore on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Add some high-proof alcohol and flavorings such as dried spices and fruit peels, let sit for a few weeks, add water and sugar, and you’ve got potent homemade bitters that will bring variety to your home bar.
This winter, I wanted to prepare a seasonal bitters that would bring some holiday spirit to my bourbon cocktails. So I’ve created a maple-walnut variety flavored with cloves, allspice and black peppercorns, then sweetened with maple syrup instead of the traditional simple syrup or molasses. Dark, complex and spicy, these nutty bitters add a touch of cold-weather warmth to a classic Manhattan, and are just as home stirred into warm spiked cider.
Maple-Walnut Cocktail Bitters
Servings: 2 1/2 cups
3/4 cup lightly toasted chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon cassia chips, available online or at specialty stores
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 cups high-proof bourbon, such as Old Granddad or Wild Turkey 101
1 cup water
2 tablespoons maple syrup
- Place all of the ingredients except the bourbon, water and maple syrup in a quart-sized Mason jar or other large glass container with a lid. Add bourbon, seal the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks, shaking the jar daily.
- After 2 weeks, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into another large jar. Squeeze the cheesecloth over the jar and transfer solids to a small saucepan. Cover the jar and set aside. Rinse out original Mason jar.
- Add the water to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover saucepan, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Let mixture cool completely, then add mixture to the original Mason jar. Cover the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 1 week, shaking the jar daily.
- After 1 week, strain the jar with the liquid and the solids through a cheesecloth-lined funnel set over the jar containing the bourbon. Add the maple syrup to the jar and stir to combine, then cover and shake well.
- Store at room temperature for 3 days, then uncover jar, skim surface of any debris and pass through a cheesecloth one last time. Using a funnel, portion bitters into smaller jars and label. The bitters will taste their best if used within 1 year.
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 month
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