It's late summer in South Africa - a quick look at one thing that's growing well and an idea of what the hell to do with it from our friends out there.
liquorice fern bitters, begins with...
... liquorice fern tincture
Anyone who appreciates a craft cocktail knows that bitters are essential to the well-stocked liquor cabinet. Fortunately, no matter where you live, there are plenty of bitter ingredients out there just waiting to be foraged for, and turned into unique, local cocktail ingredients.
Commercial bitters are based on long lists of tropical ingredients like chinchona bark, cascarilla, and quassia bark, none of which I can harvest locally. I suggest starting out instead by tincturing just a few foraged ingredients, so you can taste the different flavors you’re working with.
Half of your solid material should be the “bitter” ingredient, and the other half can be split however you like - I divide the remainder between a fruit and a spice.
Some people make their bitters by combining individual tinctures in specific proportions, and others macerate their chosen plants and mushrooms together in one, multilayered, mega-tincture, letting the flavors blend synergistically. I’ve experimented with both, but I prefer the latter. There’s something slightly magical about how flavors blend when tinctured in a single container. [see Ellen's article about tinctures >> ]
Either way, if you’re going to move from tincture to bitters, there’s one more step. The most important difference between tinctures and bitters is that bitters are usually ever-so-slightly sweetened. You can do this with a little simple syrup, or, make a decoction of sugar, water, and the solids you’ve strained out of your base tincture(s).
Here’s a recipe for simple, foraged bitters made by tincturing three of my favorite local ingredients. Feel free to follow it verbatim, or substitute your own local, wild edibles.
Fill a jar with eight ounces of neutral grain spirit, and add one ounce of chopped, dried, dandelion root (the bitter), ½ ounce of dried sumac berries (the spice), and 1 ounce of chopped, fresh or frozen crabapples (the fruit). Cover the jar, shake it, and store it out of direct sunlight. Shake it every day for a week, then taste it. If the flavor isn’t strong enough, close it back up and taste every two days. Your bitters should be done after three weeks, at the latest.
Strain off the solids, and move them to a saucepan. Measure the alcohol, then set it aside. Here’s where the sweetening comes in, and I like to do it with a decoction. [see picture: sassafras twig decoction in progress]
Measure out twice as much water as you have alcohol, and add it to the pan with the solids. For every four ounces of liquid, add one teaspoon of sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Then, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, uncovered. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the liquid sit overnight. Strain the cooled liquid, and combine it with the reserved, infused alcohol to reach an ABV of 35-45%, in the proportions described below.
Pour your bitters into small, colored glass bottles, and store them out of direct sun. Cheers!
Bitters - which alcohol to use and why
Like tinctures, bitters were first sold as medicine. Angostura bitters (probably the best-known brand) were created to treat stomach ailments for sailors, long before bitters were used as a cocktail ingredient. Medicinal tinctures are generally made with flavorless spirits, like vodka or Everclear. Most commercial bitters are also made with neutral grain spirits. When making your own bitters, Everclear 151 is the easiest to work with because not only is it neutral in flavor, but it has an ABV of 75 percent, which simplifies your math. (Yes, there’s math in making bitters!) Commercial bitters have an ABV of between 35 and 45%. With Everclear 151, when it’s time to dilute your bitters to the appropriate ABV, just add an equal amount of water-based solution to the infused spirit, and there you are at 37.5 percent. If you’ve used a 100-proof spirit, add ¼ ounce of water-based solution for every ounce of infused, 100-proof alcohol. This will give you a final ABV of 40 percent. Once you get comfortable playing around with different flavors, you might try using a non-neutral spirit as a base. Rye, rum, and bourbon all make tasty bitters.
Read more from Andy Hamilton about making bitters from Alexanders (carrot family) >>