The World of Medicinal Cocktail Bitters
When we began, we knew that we wanted to make our own
From the start, I knew that it was important to craft our own house amaro. As we’ve grown, our amaro has developed just like our bar… traversing from easy and manageable to more developed and nuanced. The first version was very berry forward. Meaning, I used every medicinal berry I could think of: elderberry, hawthorne berry, and schizandra berry. While delightful, it drank more like a vermouth and wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I’ve done a couple of workshops at this point, and understand that the optimal results are attained through trial and error. The first time I did a workshop, I had several people come up to me and tell me their results were terrible and undrinkable. My response to that is always what did you do? A lot of times they will tell me they don’t know or don’t remember and I will usually tell them that was your first mistake. It’s important to note your ingredients, your quantities, and your process. It’s like any recipe, you make an awesome pasta sauce but are never able to duplicate it again because you were just heaving things into a pot. The key to creating quality is intention. You have to be intentional in the way that you construct your product. This, I feel, is a general rule of life. Oh, I know the struggle, it’s much easier to be laissez-fiare than it is to really take the time to be meticulous but, as with everything in life, you get what you put in… No pun intended. So note your ingredients, the difference between 1 and 2 teaspoons of lavender is the difference between pleasingly floral and cloyingly perfumey.
If this is something that you want to experiment with and have more interest in delving further, I’d recommend Brad Thomas Parson’s Amaro book. While I don’t think it has all of the answers and has excluded some of my favorite amari, it’s the most thorough resource to date. It will give you a solid foundation of what this class of spirits are, how to understand them, and how they stand within the narrative of bar culture. There are always 2 books I tell my new bartenders to read, this book and the Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler. These two books will get them into the spirit of Amaro’s Table and help them understand some of the nuance and science behind an Amaro-focused bar program.
Herbs are your Friends
I have tasted many simples, that is, single tinctures of individual herbs and am now getting a sense of how they work within the whole picture but it still isn’t always perfect. A simple of Mt. Bog Gentian, our native species of gentian, is a beautifully floral species of this family, but may not have the backbone to stand up to some of the other dominant characters in this Amaro story. Likewise, Western Red Cedar, a species native to the northwest and wonderful in whatever blends you are crafting, may seem too powerful on its own but I can assure you that it is not and deserves your consideration in your own Amari featuring local flora and fauna. It takes time and patience to know anything well, so give yourself time and patience and experiment to your hearts content.
Also, if you’ve ever been interested in the herbal medicine side of things, my favorite book is the “Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook” by James Green. It will give you an outline of herbs, their medicinal properties and how you can use them in everything from soaps, tinctures, cough syrups and more. I like to think about the medicinal constituents of these herbs when I’m constructing my Amaro. As in Ayurvedic medicine, healing the body is about balance and using the natural energies of the plants to create a tonic that is good for all parts of the mind and body. After all, Amari began as healing tonics for the people. Sage, for instance, is reported to increase cognition and relieve inflammation in the joints. If we combine that with hawthorn berries, which increase overall heart health, we have just created, from two herbs, a tonic that will help the heart and the mind. This is one but a few of the possibilities that using the ancient traditions of herbal healing and Amaro production can be not only a delicious beverage, but a tonic that you can use to improve your health. My favorite resource for procuring herbs to craft your home Amari or bitter tonics is through Clary Sage Herbarium on Alberta in Portland or Mountain Rose Herbs in Eugene (the latter is an online site.) They will have an extensive catalog of herbs that you can purchase in ounce increments.
Make Your Own Amaro
The mark of a great amaro is complexity. You want your amaro to hit all points in the flavor metric and roll around the tongue in layers. That means you need your bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami. When thinking about amaro construction in these terms, you don’t want to add salt, but you do want to add something that gives it a savory quality, herbs like sage or dill can impart these qualities nicely in the finished whole. There’s a lot of information out there on the internet and you can easily google, “make your own amari” and find some good results. What I’ve detailed below is what I’ve had the best luck with. There’s a lot of science and chemistry you can get into with formulas on weight/volume and such but we will keep it simple and go with the folk method.
Spirit: Start with any over-proof clear neutral grain spirit of at least 100 proof. You are extracting dried herbs, which means the water has been removed and the flavors are more concentrated. By using Everclear, you’re going to extract a lot of the volatile compounds of these herbs so use the herbs sparingly. I tend to lean towards over-proof vodkas for my extraction. You’ll still achieve a good flavor profile, but you’ll run less risk of over-extraction and have more room for error. If you get a little heavy handed with lavender or other floral herbs in Everclear, they will dominate your profile and be hard to mask. You’ll want your final extraction % to be between 65-75% to get a balanced extraction. You can achieve this by either doing math and adding water to Everclear or combining your vodka and Everclear together.
Bitter: The bitters are the most important part of the amaro and provide the foundation on which you will build your great amaro. I’ve heard many lines of thinking on this, from your recipe should be comprised of at least half bittering ones, to choosing one or two. In a 32 oz mason jar, you should include about 16 oz of dried plant materials and I’d recommend using a scale–The weight of a leaf like peppermint is going to be a lot less than say a root like gentian. Of that 16 oz, at least 4-6 oz should be bitters like gentian, artichoke, cinchona, angelica ect. Obviously, the more bitters you include, the more bitter your final product will be.
Dried: Your dried plant matter is going to be your flavor foundation. Going back to the flavor elements, we’ve covered bitter so the remaining 10-12 oz of herb should cover the sour, umami, sweet and salty. There are a few herbs that can impart the perception of salty without adding salt to our mixture: herbs like bay leaf, cumin, cardamom, ginger and coriander all have a perceived saltiness to them. Sour we can use herbs like Schisandra berries, wood sorrel, lemongrass, and pomegranate. For sweet we can use herbs with a natural sweetness, herbs like mint, bee balm, roses, elderflowers and so on. And finally, savory herbs that include dill, fennel, sage and rosemary. If you follow this idea around balance of flavors, you should find something that suits you. A pinch of this and touch of that may be all you need. You can see why many Amari will claim to have more than 30 different ingredients in them. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of building your base.
Infusion: Fresh citrus peel can add a zest to your finished product but use sparingly, a little goes a long way. In our 32 oz mason jar we wouldn’t need more than 1-2 strips of our various citrus. Be careful not to get any pith (the white part) into your product. Once all plant material is added to your jar, fill the jar to the top with alcohol. You can place a rock or something that won’t impart a flavor over the herbs to keep them submerged in the alcohol. Place some parchment paper on the lid and screw your lid on. Label and date.
Sweet: After your infusion has sat for 3-4 weeks, you’ll strain all the plant material out and add your sweetening agent. Some folks add simple, which will account for the dilution that you will need to add to get your finished product to a place where it is 30% ABV, the abv of a standard amaro. You can sweeten with honey, molasses, agave, raw or beet sugar. You’ll create a syrup with equal parts water and sweetener, so 16 oz sugar and 16 oz water and add that to your infusion. Do your math, if your product was 75% abv then you’ll add a little more dilution to get to the sweet spot of 30%ABV. I’ll sometimes add a few cups of wine at this point too.
Finish: At the end of it, you’ll want to place the product back in your mason jars and let it sit for a few weeks to mellow. If you have access to one, I like to add it to the miniature bourbon barrel. It can just live in that while you are enjoying it and the barrel really allows the product to transform—taste it through the months and make notes on how it changes. Some commercial Amari is mellowed without barrels and others are barrel aged.