At the end of the first part of my DIY bitters experiment, the ingredients were in their respective jars and I was waiting for them to infuse within the comfort of my Manhattan closet. A week went by, and my bitters (after seven daily shake sessions to the rhythm of Miami Sound Machine’s “Bad Boy”) started taking on their flavors and aroma profiles. The aromas got intense — high-proof alcohol is an effective blank canvas. On my citrus/clove/pink peppercorn blend, the floral spice of the peppercorns and cloves hit first, followed by that zing of citrus, the flavors playing nicely off each other. The cherry/birch batch, however, is almost entirely birch; it’s herbal and bitter with just an undercurrent of sweetness from the rainier cherries, which have a mild flavor (note to self: next time use Bings if possible). To counteract the birch’s bitterness, I stirred in a teaspoon of cherry-infused honey I’d picked up at the Greenmarket. As for the smoked bourbon bitters, the vanilla harmonized with its bourbon base while the sarsaparilla was more of a background note, but it had a glaring flaw. It wasn’t smoked yet!
Using the Polyscience Smoking Gun, I tried two methods. First I piped smoke on top of the bourbon, quickly sealing the jar and shaking like mad until the smoke incorporated into the liquid. When that proved somewhat unsuccessful (the smoke smell was there, but the taste was absent), I used a rubber tube that comes with the gun to aerate the bourbon. (I was inspired by Houston mixologist Robert Heugel’s efforts on Drink Dogma, in which he employed a fish tank aerator for the task). The smoke’s acridity needed to be balanced, so I added half an orange’s worth of zest. Every day, the mixtures got murkier and murkier, as the high-proof boozes leached the flavors out. Cracking open the lids after the second week, it was time for the final three steps: straining, simmering, and filtering.
1. Using a colander, strain out the solid ingredients. From here you can either skip to step 3, or follow below. 2. In a saucepan or deep skillet, combine the solid ingredients with 3/4 cup liquid (for the two with Devil’s Spring vodka; for the bourbon I did half Booker’s and half Red Jacket Orchards apple-lemon juice). Bring to a simmer, cooking for two minutes. Let cool, strain through a colander, and add to solution. 3. Using a coffee filter, strain the mixture at least once to extract impurities. What you’re left with is some homemade, crystal-clear, liquid magic.
I purchased a dozen amber dropper bottles, the kind favored by massage therapists, and siphoned off my elixirs for distribution. My buddy Mark gets a special shout-out as he received one for his birthday … see, instant presents. We’re always looking out for you at House Special. And now that I’m ready to put my bitters to use, well — I have no fucking clue as to what I should do with them, or if what I’ve made is even halfway decent or just a collection of Frankenstein spirits destined to be chased out of town with pitchforks. Which is why I’m putting their fate in the hands of a most virtuous member of the NYC cocktail elite, PDT’s Jim Meehan, recently crowned American Bartender of the Year (with PDT garnering World’s Best Cocktail Bar) at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. Meehan has agreed to give my babies the once-over. I’m a bit nervous about throwing my figurative taint on the chopping block, but at worst I’ve been promised some constructive criticism. In part three, I’ll either get served a drink … or some well-meaning advice!