A Delightfully Bitter Interview

I was recently at a party that was, without exaggeration, the single greatest event to occur in the history of the entire universe, ever.  Truly, it was a sight to behold. There was a vast supply of fine liquor. There were cocktail recipes posted on the walls. There was a champagne bar. There were fine and exotic varieties of punches. There was liquid nitrogen. There was bourbon foam. It was truly a mind-numbing shindig, and the best part? For party favors, there was a make-your-own bitters bar.

I was particularly taken by the bitters bar, and demanded to know more. The hostess generously agreed to submit to a brief interview. And here it is! You lucky devils…

It’s been a while since we talked about drinkables. The last I remember, you were enthusiastically exploring the craft beer scene. Homebrewing too, I think. How did you get from there to making bitters and infusions and tinctures, oh my?

Every few years my passion shifts. First it was wine, then beer, now cocktails. Bitters are just one small artisan territory among so many in the cocktail terrain.

My introduction to bitters as a craft was via a “Demystifying Spirits” seminar from Bittercube and Ocean Grill that I didn’t actually attend. My boyfriend did, though, and he brought back exotic tales of subtle flavor changes and artisan craftsmen right here in Wisconsin. Collecting all the Bittercube flavors was fun, made a pretty collection on the shelf, and inspired a lot of experimenting at home.

One of the things I like best about them is what I love about homebrewing: accessibility. A regular lady like me can take a few ingredients and create something that enriches my mimosa, wildly alters my Manhattan, and jazzes up whatever concoction I threw together in the shaker. Plenty of fancy kitchens have decorative bottles of olive oil with picturesque herbs marinating inside—why not a bottle of grain alcohol with herbs infusing? Decorative AND useful. And boozy.

I still make beer on occasion, mind you.

The book Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-Allhad a prominent place at your bitters bar. How did you come to find it? Care to provide a capsule review?

My excellent boyfriend gifted me with great books for my birthday like Bitters and the PDT cocktail guide, thus ensuring that we continue to be a well-cocktailed household. Bitters is not only a history of the noble tincture but also a how-to guide and a recipe book for cooking with bitters. I’m terribly excited about that. At Roots in Milwaukee, for instance, we just had a kale and apple salad prepared with a touch of Bittercube’s Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters. It was a delicious non-standard use of bitters.

What’s the basic process of making bitters? (Feel free to withhold any magical secrets.)

Fetch strong liquor. Everclear will do. Vodka, too. Into this, immerse that which you find tasty. Wait. Use.

Gin and tonics or sparkling wine are great canvases for bitters and I recommend them for taste-testing. The end.

You could also be a mad scientist about it. Real bitters experts make a separate tincture of the bittering agent (wormwood, quassia, gentian, quinine, cinchona, etc) and at least one aromatic blend (orange, cinnamon, anise, etc). When each is at the right strength, the blending process begins.

But for the lazy, I’ve had great luck throwing it all together in a bottle. I’ve got a coffee blend at home based on Thai iced coffee flavors, a lemon-ginger, and an orange-cardamom. All have proven usable.

Is it difficult to track down the ingredients? Or particularly expensive?

Bittering agents are the only atypical ingredient in your average bottle of homemade bitters. But you can get a pound of dried gentian root on Amazon and make a bar’s worth of bitters. All other ingredients I’ve gotten from Indian groceries and Penzey’s Spices.

Will you be laboring in the garden of infusions for the foreseeable future, or are there plans to explore new frontiers of alcoholic insanity?

Oh, more amateur fumblings in the arena of experts, definitely. For instance, we just had a drink at Bacchus in Milwaukee that was made of gin, amaro, housemade old-fashioned syrup, Punt e Mes, and orange whip. The whip turned out to be a foam made with a seaweed derivative, which is way different from the agar agar foam I’ve tried before, so now I have to track this down and learn all about molecular mixology.

(Photo: A truly splendid bitters bar, captured in digital form by a drunken partygoer.)