Add an extra drop of cheer to your holiday beverages this year with homemade bitters and flavored simple syrups. It’s easier than you think and makes for a great host or hostess gift for any celebration.
“Syrups are extremely easy and very approachable. Bitters is a lot more work,” mixologist Michelle Stohlgren told Moonshine Ink, noting that most people are drawn to crafting syrups because the process is quick and easy. “But they don’t have a very long shelf life, so that’s kind of the downside of it. Whereas bitters, they [take] a lot more work but they last forever.”
Bitters, Stohlgren explained, are essentially a tincture with an assortment of different spices, flavors, and a bitter herb. They were first created because they contain medicinal properties.
“With the tincture, you take a very high-proof spirit like Everclear, and you infuse all the flavors that you want,” she said. “You can go for fresh spices, you can do lemon … you really have a lot of things you can do with it, but adding a bitter plant changes the profile of it and it creates a bitter flavor.”
The process calls for no added sugar, so the content is all spirit, but it’s such a high concentration that you only use small drops in cocktails to impart lots of flavor. When bitters are mentioned, classic cocktails like martinis, Manhattans, and the old-fashioned come to mind. However, they can also be added into regular cocktails just to kind of give it that extra kick. They’re even a refreshing way to spruce up a glass of plain soda water.
“You only need a couple drops, and by adding them to a cocktail, it imparts a lot of really unique flavors,” Stohlgren said. “It gives viscosity, it gives a boldness to spirits, it pairs with alcohol. So, generally, you use it in a spirit-forward cocktail, which … traditionally does not have fresh juices in it.”
The upside of bitters is that they last, well, forever. Stohlgren suggests a quick internet search to find a recipe, but adds that there are two main methods of crafting bitters. Most people, she noted, tend to go the simpler route of throwing all the ingredients in one jar, letting them sit for a week, and straining out all the ingredients. The remaining mixture is your bitters.
“But the really nerdy pupil puts each ingredient in a separate jar and then [combines them] to create the flavor profile that they would like,” explained Stohlgren. “Lemon becomes a lot stronger as it ferments over time … bitter herbs and plants can also be a lot stronger … So you have a spirit, a bitter, and a sweet or a spirit [or] a bitter and a wine, and those all kind of marry together. You can create balance and harmony in your cocktail.”
Syrups, on the other hand, are easy to craft from scratch — but they have a shorter shelf-life. Syrups are created from equal parts of dissolved sugar and water, and with any fresh flavor (berries, citrus, etc.) on top of that. For example, a strawberry simple syrup is made by adding ground strawberries to the sugar/water mixture.
One way to get there is to bring the sugar and water to a boil, stir until the sugar is dissolved, and add your flavor of choice. Stohlgren’s preferred method utilizing fresh ingredients is to make a maceration. With strawberries, for example, she chops the berries and coats them with sugar, ensuring each is entirely covered. Letting them sit in the refrigerator overnight allows for the sugar to pull out all the natural flavors of the strawberry . Then just add equal parts of water to that.
“Anything that has a lot of water content to it is the way to go,” Stohlgren added. “That makes the biggest bold flavors.”
Holiday Simple Syrup
Bring one cup water to a boil and add three holiday flavor-blend tea bags. Turn off the heat and let tea steep for 20 minutes. Then strain out tea bags and add 1 cup of sugar (can be substituted for honey or preferred sweetener). Stir until sugar has dissolved. Place your Holiday Simple Syrup in a jar or container with a lid and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Winter’s Old Fashioned
2.5 oz bourbon (or: scotch, whiskey, rum, aged tequila,
Old Tom gin)
0.5 oz holiday simple syrup
3 dashes aromatic bitters
Combine all three ingredients in a glass. Top with a large cube of ice and stir. Garnish with a flamed lemon peel.
Note: Find a great recipe for holiday bitters online at larderlove.com.