Better with bitters

Add your own unique flavour to cocktails with homemade bitters. Here’s how

A variety of spices, herbs and other botanicals give bitters their intense flavour. Dan Toulgoet photo

Making your own bitters at home is a lot easier than you may think. However, we need to understand a few things first. Cocktails, by definition, are made up of four essential ingredients: spirits, sugar, water and bitters. Spirits are self-explanatory. The sugar and water elements can be exactly that or they can take on other forms, such as syrups and juices. Bitters are much more complex, though. Bartenders use bitters to bridge the flavours of spirits, sugar and water so they come together. The key to selecting the right bitter is to use one that complements the other three components in the cocktail.

Bitters are made from three essential categories.

Bittering agents: roots, barks and citrus peels.

Aromatics and flavouring agents: spices, herbs, fruits, flowers and nuts.

• Alcohol: high-proof neutral grain spirits such as vodka, or more flavourful ones such as over-proof rum and gin.

There are two ways to make your own bitters at home. One is to create a series of tinctures, a single-ingredient-infused alcohol that is later blended with other tinctures to achieve your final product. The second is batching the ingredients together in one infusion. The latter is the method that we will explore here. I have chosen to make two simple bitters recipes, using easily found ingredients, that you can use in a variety of drinks. As always, I encourage you to use these recipes as a starting point, then experiment and create your own flavours.

DISCLAIMER: It’s important to note that many ingredients used in bitters have medicinal properties and can have both negative and positive side effects. I recommend doing your research and contacting professionals that have experience with ingredients you may be unfamiliar with.

How to make bitters

Choose your flavour:

The ingredients needed for JT’s Orange and Chamomile Bitters. Dan Toulgoet photo

JT’s Orange and Chamomile Bitters

(great with clear spirit cocktails)

Bittering agents:
• 12 g dried gentian root
• 12 g dried licorice root
• Dried peels of 8 oranges (white pith removed)

Aromatics and flavouring agents:
12 g dried chamomile flowers
• 12 g dried lemongrass
• 0.5 tsp cardamom seeds
• 0.5 tsp coriander seeds

• 2 cups high proof vodka (45% ABV minimum)


The ingredients needed to make JT’s Hula Bitters. Dan Toulgoet photo

JT’s Hula Bitters

(perfect for tiki drinks and whisky libations)

Bittering agents:
• 12 g dried angelica root
• 12 g dried licorice root
• Dried peels of 4 grapefruits (white pith removed)

Aromatics and flavouring agents:
• 12 g dried allspice berries
• 12 g pink peppercorns
• 2 cinnamon sticks
• 1 dried vanilla bean
• 2 star anise pods

2 cups 151 proof navy rum


Place all ingredients in an airtight jar and let rest for eight weeks at room temperature in a cool dark place. Strain the ingredients through a fine mesh sieve.

Dan Toulgoet photo

Bottle, label and seal until ready for use. The longer you wait, the more flavourful your bitters will be. Makes about 1.5 cups.

Cosmosis, left, and Secret Life of the Limbless Pirate, right, are two cocktails created by Justin Taylor that use his bitters. Dan Toulgoet photo

Make these recipes at home with your new bitters:

The Secret Life of the Limbless Pirate

—by Justin Taylor

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