Pep Up Your At-Home Cocktails With DIY Bitters

Despite typically being used in small amounts, bitters are a key component in some of the most essential and classic whisky cocktails. “When you make a cocktail, you have to combine all the flavors together, and bitter is the binder of the whole drink,” says Kashish Chhetri, bartender at the Park Hyatt Bolgatty in Kochi, India. “A dash of a bitter combines the taste and brings the best out of the drink.”

Like many bartenders, Chhetri often makes his own bitters. “They give us the exact aroma that we prefer for a cocktail, and we miss that in the pre-made bitters,” he explains, adding that custom bitters are often the only way to get certain flavors in a drink. Commercial versions like bird’s eye chile bitters don’t exist, he says. One of Chhetri’s most-used recipes is for herbal bitters made with mint, rosemary, basil, and lemongrass, featured in the hotel’s Herbal Manhattan.

Jordan Fuller, beverage manager at The Fitler Club in Philadelphia, also relies on house-made bitters and tinctures for a number of his cocktails. “I prefer to make my own bitters because it opens the door for creativity and the amount of flavors we can come up with,” he says. Fuller’s infusion of za’atar—a Middle Eastern spice mixture that typically includes sumac, oregano, sesame seeds, and more—serves as bitters in the Matador cocktail, made with bourbon, sherry, and demerara sugar.

But you don’t have to be a professional bartender to make your own bitters. The basic process is as easy as steeping spices and herbs in a neutral spirit like vodka, though you can also use other spirits, including whisky and gin.

Be sure to follow a recipe written by a professional, like the ones below, and consult CocktailSafe—an online resource for bartenders, amateur and pro alike—to be sure the ingredients you use aren’t potentially harmful when steeped in alcohol or taken in concentrated amounts. Start with these recipes, which contain benign and easy-to-find ingredients.

Do It Yourself: Custom Bitters (And the Cocktails to Use Them In)

Herbal Bitters
By Kashish Chhetri, bartender at the Park Hyatt Bolgatti in Kochi, India

  • 375 ml. vodka
  • Handful of fresh mint, unchopped
  • Handful of fresh rosemary, unchopped
  • Handful of fresh basil, unchopped
  • Handful of fresh lemongrass, unchopped

Combine all ingredients in a glass jar and infuse for two weeks in a dark space without sunlight, then strain into a clean container.

Park Hyatt Bolgatti Manhattan
By Kashish Chhetri, bartender at the Park Hyatt Bolgatti in Kochi, India

  • 2 oz. bourbon
  • 6 dashes herbal bitters
  • 1 oz. Martini and Rossi vermouth
  • Garnish: maraschino cherry, orange peel

Add bourbon, bitters, and vermouth to a mixing glass with ice. Stir until well-chilled. Serve in a chilled rocks glass with ice, and garnish with a maraschino cherry and an orange peel.

Za’atar Tincture
By Jordan Fuller, beverage manager at The Fitler Club in Philadelphia

  • 4 Tbs. za’atar
  • 250 ml vodka

Steep the za’atar in vodka overnight, then strain into a clean container.

The Matador Cocktail
By Jordan Fuller, beverage manager at The Fitler Club in Philadelphia

  • 2 oz. Maker’s Mark bourbon
  • ½ oz. amontillado sherry
  • ½ oz. demerara sugar
  • 8 dashes za’atar tincture

Add ingredients to a mixing glass with ice. Stir until very cold. Strain into a coupe and serve.

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