Citrus Bitters: Phase I

by Madeline Popelka


I once heard that bitters are the salt and pepper of cocktails. So true. Just a drop or two can completely transform a cocktail, adding new dimensions of flavor, providing a bittersweet contrast to the accompanying liquors. If I test a cocktail I whip up and it tastes like there’s something missing, bitters is usually the fix.

Bitters weren’t always used as flavor-enhancers in cocktails. Historically, bitters were sold as medicine (to avoid alcohol taxation), and people would drink it straight, convinced that it cured any ailment out there. It was normal to carry around a nip of bitters, taking swigs of it if you felt a headache coming on, or if you had an upset stomach (although, certain bitters really do aid digestion). Sometime in the early 1800s, people started mixing their spirits with a couple drops of bitters (maybe a little more if it was crappy booze), and the cocktail was created.

A few months ago I decided that I wanted to make my own bitters. Why? Cause I’m a cocktail geek and I thought it would be fun! If you haven’t already figured it out, Kendall and I like taking full advantage of seasonal ingredients. Because citrus is peaking right now, we decided to kick off our bitters experimentation with a batch of Blood Orange- Grapefruit bitters.

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One funny thing about Kendall and I—we don’t follow recipes. Sometimes it’s because we don’t have a certain ingredient and need to use a substitute, but it’s usually because we like to create a new recipe that’s ours. As Kendall mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been reading the Bitters book by Brad Thomas Parsons. He has a great looking grapefruit bitters recipe in there, but because I forgot to order an ingredient his recipe calls for (oops!), we are putting our own little spin on it.

Now, making bitters takes a long time (about a month), but they are really easy to make. All you need to do is go out and buy a bunch of botanicals, herbs and spices, throw them all in a jar with a high-proof spirit (should be at least 100 proof), and wait. And yes, Tom Petty, the waiting really is the hardest part!

First we prepared our flavoring agents—the fruits and herbs that will be responsible for the primary flavor profile of the bitters. We used pairing knives to cut off the zest of one grapefruit and three blood oranges. When doing this we wanted to get just the zest of the fruit—no pith (the white stuff, which can make bitters too bitter).

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We also measured out some dried citrus peel (which Kendall and I made a few weeks ago), coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cardamom pods, and gentian root (the bittering agent that will actually make our bitters bitter).

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We then threw all these ingredients in a quart-sized mason jar with two cups of Everclear and gave it a quick shake. 

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I put Kendall in charge of babysitting this first batch of bitters. She is to keep the jar in room temperature, out of direct sunlight for two weeks, shaking it once a day. In a couple weeks we will be moving on to Phase II, where we will strain the liquid through some cheesecloth, cook down the solids with some water, and do some more waiting. Stay tuned!