Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Spirits >
Sep 18, 2013 01:50 PM

Differences between bittering agents

I've got a lot of canning jars sitting around the kitchen right now, full of various combinations of bitters ingredients. This seems like a potentially infinite hobby. My question is--what is the difference between the various bittering agents? How would a single flavor come out differently with gentian, wormwood, quassia...? Any thoughts?

Also, I have a very medicinal-tasting set of bitters that I made mostly out of ingredients foraged in my back yard--burdock root, barberry root bark, lavender, with some additions of peppercorn and cardamom--cured in high proof bourbon. I added some dark simple syrup to try to round out the flavor and it tastes good, but I'm struggling to know what to do with it vis-a-vis cocktails. Ideas?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. There are several ways to look at bitters and their ingredients. You have things like gentian, wormwood, quassia, which have a flavor, but are so bitter that much of the flavor is lost. Then you have other botanicals which have flavor, but no bitterness. then you have botanicals with lots of flavor, and if you let steep long enough they have bitterness as well. Lavender is a good example of this. I don't actually like to use the botanicals with tons of bitterness.

    I like bitters that are more aromatic, with just enough bitterness that when a dash is added to a cocktail the bitterness is watered down enough to be refreshing, but not actual tons of perceived bitterness.

    You need to know what the actual flavors, aromas, and bitterness levels are in what you are making. First take a dash and put into the palm of your hand. Rub your hands together briefly and shake them until the alcohol has evaporated and they are almost dry. Cup your hands and sniff deeply. This will let you know what the aroma is. Then taste 1-2 drops straight and see what the flavor and bitterness level is like. Then add a few dashes to a glass of cool water, stir and sniff, then taste. This will let you know what the aroma, flavor, and bitterness levels are like when diluted.

    After you do all this then you can think about what cocktails, spirits, etc. would be enhanced or complemented by the bitters/tincture.

    4 Replies
    1. re: JMF

      This is helpful. Thanks. I've been doing the bitters on the palm thing, but it's good advice to take it through the whole aroma - full strength - dilution process.

      I guess with the bittering agents themselves, like gentian and wormwood, maybe I should just put some of each in Everclear or HPV so I can get a better sense of the difference in the quality of bitterness and flavor they impart. I haven't been able to find anything written that talks about how these particular ingredients differ from each other.

      1. re: versicle

        Yes, definitely infuse ingredients separately into tinctures. I have over 215 different botanicals in tincture form to use as my flavor/aroma library.

        1. re: JMF

          215! Do you do anything besides infusing roots!

          1. re: DrinkinLife

            My "Flavor Library" is just part of my cocktail and spirits lab. I have a huge home lab that I use in my distillery, bar, and restaurant consulting business. I do spend an hour or two in the lab 3-4 days a week, sometimes more. Here's a pic from when I only had around 115 botanical tinctures.