1.5.17 Bottled Up
The year 2017 is upon us! I'm a January baby, so this month always feels like a fresh start. I'll be turning 54 in a couple of weeks; well past the halfway mark, which is a bit startling somehow. I think about death a lot—have done ever since my father died when I was 26 (he was 64), and then my husband died when I was 40 (he was 41) and my mother died that same year (she was 76). For me, a big part of living is preparing to die and I don't feel this is morbid or maudlin. I want to die in peace and without regrets and this means striving to live in a state of grace. For those of you who haven't yet made it to this age and are curious about what lies ahead, here is what I can report: I have plenty of energy, dreams and plans. The world continues to be full of surprises and challenges. I am never bored. Slowing down is something I do to improve the quality of my life. There is always something new to learn, including about myself. The longer I live, the more I turn to nature for guidance, nourishment and wisdom. Any time I can be outside or interacting with plants is a source of joy for me and making bitters is an extension of that.
The kind people at Infinity Jars sent me some samples of their pigmented glass jars and bottles, which are wonderful for preserving the quality of fragile herbs and oils. They are made of deep violet glass, which blocks out harmful visible light rays but still admits those proven to have preservative qualities. I love their screw-top jars for storing my special tea blends, foraged mushrooms and homemade cosmetics, and the small bottles with droppers are ideal for bitters.
If you missed my post a couple of weeks ago about bitters, it's here. The three different types I made—rose-citrus, warming spice and maple-fenugreek—steeped for about a month in overproof alcohol. Then I strained them and used the solids to create a water decoction to dilute the mix. I combined that with the infused alcohol and let that sit for another week. The results got strained several times through a double layer of cheesecloth to remove as much sediment as possible. To this clarified liquid, I added a bit of turbinado sugar syrup and, voilà, bitters!
I received a number of delightful books over the holidays, including two from my husband: Naomi Duguid's wonderful Taste of Persia and Mark Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters & Amari. The latter arrived after my bitter-making experiment was well underway and I was slightly distressed to read that Mr. Bitterman advises steeping bitters for days rather than weeks and recommends frequent tasting during the process.
Although the ingredients I used were all delicious, they were steeping in Everclear (191 proof) and Devil's Springs vodka (151 proof), whose overpowering alcohol taste really masks all other flavors. So it wasn't until well into the process—once the steeping was done and dilution had taken place—that I took my first taste.
I was extremely relieved to discover that all three flavors had turned out quite well! They are intense and bitter but nicely balanced and imbued with discernible notes of the herbs, spices and aromatics I used. My next challenge is to come up with cocktails, and perhaps a dish or two, that show each one to its best advantage.
I'm sharing one of my recipes with you, but feel free to use it as a template to create your own style of bitters. Perhaps you want a single flavor, something very fruit-forward or maybe a spicy version. If you're not a big drinker of spirits, a simple glass of bitters-&-soda on the rocks is a wonderful alternative. I drank glass after glass on New Year's Eve and ushered in 2017 with a clear head and stars in my eyes.
Warming Spice Bitters
- — 2 cups 151 proof vodka
- — 1 teaspoon whole allspice
- — 2 tablespoons cacao nibs
- — 1 whole vanilla bean, split
- — 1 stick cassia
- — 3 star anise
- — 4 cloves
- — 10 green cardamom pods, bruised
- — 1/3 cup raisins
- — 1 ounce crystallized ginger, diced
- — 1/4 ounce mace
- — 2 teaspoons dried gentian
- — 1/2 ounce fresh angelica root, diced
- — 1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses
- — 3/4 cup turbinado simple syrup
Combine all ingredients through the molasses in a large, airtight nonreactive container and stir well. The solids should be submerged with an additional 1/2" of alcohol.
Store in a cool, dark place and shake daily for 4 weeks.
At the end of the 4th week, strain through a fine mesh strainer, reserving the solids and the strained alcohol in separate bowls.
Make the dilution liquid by combining the solids in a large saucepan with 4 cups water. Bring to a boil for about 15 minutes, then cover and cool. Strain through a fine mesh strainer.
Measure the strained alcohol and mix with an equal amount of the strained dilution liquid. Store in a cool, dark place for 5 days.
After 5 days, check for clarity (hold liquid up to the light) and strain one or more times through several layers of cheesecloth as needed to remove particles.
Add the simple syrup to the bitters mixture and stir well to combine. Transfer bitters to dark glass bottles with stoppers for easy dispensing.