This post marks Day 12 of Miss Ginsu's 2007 Advent Calendar. To click into other days and other projects, use the calendar page to navigate.
The dank, dark days of December are famously crowded with cocktail parties. Cocktails and latkes for Hanukkah parties, cocktails and pigs in blankets for Christmas parties, cocktails and blini for New Year's Eve.
Aside from the sleek glassware and ostentatious garnishes, my favorite aspect of the cocktail is the stories that follow in the wake of every highball, martini, gimlet and toddy out there. To follow the history of cocktails is to dive down a fascinating rabbit warren of nooks, crannies, characters and concoctions.
My obsession of the moment is with bitters. Having recently discovered that Marlow & Sons, my local shop of culinary wonders was making their own bitters, my mind opened to a new world of possibility.
You can make bitters? Like, not buy them but make them? At home? Without a still? What an adventure!
Yes, Virginia, you can whip up your own homemade bitters. As it turns out, that's what our ancestors used to do. Bitters were common among the herbal tinctures and tonics of an ancient age. And though they're rarely used in cocktails today, bitters preceded the first cock-tails and were, by definition, a necessary component of the earliest cocktail mixes.
The second known printed reference to cocktails comes in the May 13, 1806, edition of the Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York:
"Cocktail is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters — it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a Democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else."
Hardy har har.
In all seriousness, the bitters-making process is embarrassingly easy and endlessly adjustable, based on your own tastes.
There's heaps of ancient recipes out there, calling for everything from obscure botanicals like columbo root, gentian and Virginia snake root to better-known additives like chamomile, cherry bark, cardamom and caraway.
I'm going with lemon, ginger and common household spices for mine. Look how pretty my steeping bitters look!
DIY Citrus Bitters
1/2 cup raisins
2-3 cinnamon sticks
1" piece fresh ginger, sliced
2 lemons, sliced
1 Tbsp whole cloves
1 Tbsp whole allspice
750 ml whiskey, rum or vodka (highest proof you can find)
1. Combine spices, citrus and liquor.
2. Cover, refrigerate and soak for 1-4 weeks.
3. Strain into a clean jar of your choice.
Make bitters now, and they'll be ready for your Christmas and New Year's cocktails.
Toss aside your Angostura and your Campari and imagine how clever you'll look when you whip out your very own home-brewed bitters at your next party.
Or be generous... Make custom labels and give bottles away as gifts.
How will you use your newfound skill in making bitters? Glad you asked! I've included three quick recipes below. Just keep in mind: bitters are not meant for straight-up sipping. Add to cocktails with a light hand, as you would use a seasoning or garnish.
1. Hot Mulled Wine
You may notice some similarity between this recipe and the Hot Mulled Apple Cider recipe from last week. I think they work well in tandem at parties. Offer Mulled Cider to the kids and teetotalers, Mulled Wine to your favorite boozehounds.
1 750-ml bottle red wine
1 cup water
1 tsp DIY Citrus Bitters
1/3 cup honey
2 cinnamon sticks
3 allspice berries
2 star anise
Zest of 1 orange, removed with a vegetable peeler
1. Pour the wine, water, honey and bitters into a large saucepan.
2. Wrap the spices and orange slices in a square of cheesecloth and tie with kitchen string (or simply use a strainer to remove spices and slices the at the end of simmering).
3. Add the spice bag to the pan and heat the wine, uncovered, over very low heat until hot, about 30 minutes.
4. Remove the spice bag (or strain out the spices and oranges), and serve hot, garnished with cinnamon sticks.
2. Citrus Bitters & Soda
Cool and refreshing on a hot summer day.
6 oz DIY Citrus Bitters
6 oz soda water
1. Half-fill a highball glass with ice.
2. Pour in bitters.
3. Fill the rest of the glass with soda water.
4. Top with a twist of citrus. Serve immediately.
3. The Gin Bitter
A cocktail classic. Substitute rum or whiskey for the gin, if you prefer.
2 jiggers gin
2 dashes DIY Citrus Bitters
1. Half-fill an old fashioned glass with cracked ice.
2. Shake gin and bitters with 1/2 cup cracked ice.
3. Pour into prepared glass.
4. Top with a twist of citrus and/or a thin slice of cucumber. Serve immediately.
Happy adventuring, all! Cheers!