Homemade Bitters Put The Local Bite Back Into Cocktails

Jul 14, 2013
Originally published on July 21, 2013 12:41 pm

Evan Mallett is hovering over some plants in a Victorian-era greenhouse in Portsmouth, N.H.

Mallett, a chef at the Black Trumpet Bistro, is collecting medicinal herbs, which he infuses in alcohol to make his own bitters, a bittersweet alcoholic concentrate used to flavor cocktails.

Mallett says he often forages in the woods for ingredients like wild chamomile, dock and burdock root for his bitters, too.

The "homemade bitters" trend is relatively new.

From Prohibition until just a few years ago, almost every bartender in the country relied on just one brand of bitters. It's so ubiquitous, you'll probably recognize the name: Angostura.

After Prohibition, locally made bitters almost disappeared. Mallett says only New Orleans retained a cocktail culture that includes a variety of bitters brands and recipes.

"We were robbed of that for so long that now the idea of having more than just this one standard bitters is just world opening," says Mallett.

In 2007, the historian David Wondrich published a book of pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes called Imbibe! Now, bartenders across the country are experimenting with these bittersweet infusions.

Evan Mallett's own bartender, Charlie Coykendall, shakes a glass mason jar with bits of root floating around in a brownish liquid.

"You always start with a base spirit. Usually, the higher the alcohol, the better — because it'll do a better job of extracting the flavors," says Coykendall.

If you're into instant gratification, making bitters may not be for you: It's a three- to six-week process. You slowly add roots or bark, zest, leaves, even petals. Then you reduce and strain it, and add sugar or maple syrup.

This one is made with ginger root. But, of course, it's generally not a good idea to drink bitters straight — unless you're a fan of Fernet Branca or Jeppson's Malort.

Coykendall likes to muddle some lemon into simple syrup, bitters, and two ounces of rye whiskey, and shake it over ice and fresh mint.

It's called a whiskey smash, a drink he says is perfect for that summer picnic.

Copyright 2014 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.nhpr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is time for again for our summer series Weekend Picnic. And today instead of a side dish or entree to feast on, we're going to bring you something to wash it all down with. Bitters are an essential ingredient in cocktails - from Old Fashioneds, to Manhattans. Some chefs experiment with local roots and herbs to mix up their own recipes for bitters. New Hampshire Public Radio's Emily Corwin takes us inside the world of homemade bitters.

EMILY CORWIN, BYLINE: Evan Mallett is hovering over some plants in a Victorian-era greenhouse in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

EVAN MALLETT: This one right here is a cinnamon geranium. So, if you rub these leaves gently in your fingers and then smell them, the intensity is incredible, and it's easy to picture that in a cocktail, I think.

CORWIN: Mallett is a chef. He's collecting medicinal herbs, which he infuses in alcohol to make bitters - a bittersweet alcoholic concentrate used to flavor cocktails.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

CORWIN: Outside the greenhouse in the rain, Mallett kneels down to cut bunches of lemon balm. He says he often forages in the woods for ingredients, too.

MALLETT: Things like wild chamomile, dock, burdock root.

CORWIN: The thing is this whole homemade bitters trend is relatively new. From prohibition until just a few years ago, almost every bartender in the country relied on just one brand of bitters. It's so ubiquitous, you'll probably recognize the name: Angostura bitters. Now, hip bartenders across the country are experimenting with these bittersweet infusions.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING)

CORWIN: Evan Mallett's own hip bartender, Charlie Coykendall, works behind the bar at The Black Trumpet Restaurant. He shakes a glass mason jar. Inside, chopped up bits of root float around in a brownish liquid.

CHARLIE COYKENDALL: You always start with a base spirit, usually the higher the alcohol the better, because it'll do a better job of extracting the flavors.

CORWIN: If you're into instant gratification, making bitters may not be for you. Turns out it's a three- to six-week process. You slowly add roots or bark, zest, leaves, even petals. Then reduce it, strain it, and add sugar or maple syrup. This one is made with ginger root.

MALLETT: So, I'll let you take a sip of that.

CORWIN: Mallett and Coykendall squeeze an eyedropper full of their ginger bitters onto a spoon, then they hand it to me. Whoa. That's very gingery and very sweet too. It's good.

MALLETT: Yeah, you don't need a lot of that one.

CORWIN: Of course, it's generally not a good idea to drink bitters straight. Coykendall adds his homemade bitters to an aluminum shaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKING)

COYKENDALL: This has some fresh lemon that I muddled into some simple syrup, some bitters, two ounces of rye whiskey, shook, over fresh ice, and fresh mint.

CORWIN: It's called a Whiskey Smash - a drink Coykendall says is perfect for that summer picnic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CUBES CLANGING ON GLASS)

CORWIN: With a cocktail in New Hampshire, I'm Emily Corwin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.