Bitters, in a nutshell, are a highly flavorful, highly concentrated mixture of a spirit and an aromatic ingredient. They are medicinal in origin, produced around the world and, increasingly, in the bars of committed mixologists. The path to complex bitters includes shaking, blending, seeking out esoteric herbs, playing a bit of chemist, and a bit of mad scientist; the end result is a dark and pungent concoction that adds deep, herbaceous notes to cocktails.
Mixologist Adam Seger built his first recipe from scraps of information found in books and on the internet; information on basic recipes abound, but the more elaborate, aromatic, multi-faceted techniques are closely guarded. Generous soul that he is, Seger shared his Bitters 27 recipe with us, because “if you’re crazy enough to surround yourself with bottles of infusions that you have to tend to every day – more power to you.”
His 3rd batch of bitters is composed of 6 infusions, each featuring a different spirit and aromatic component, to be infused for 2 weeks and shaken daily. The infusions are then combined (to taste), left to marry overnight, seasoned with wormwood, lavender, passionflower, and rosewood, and bottled. They are decidedly high maintenance – but worth it, he says.
On the current Nacional 27 menu, the bitters appear in the house mojito, in the Latin Manhattan (cigar-infused bourbon, bitters, and homemade maraschino cherries), in Pisco Sours, and in a Champagne-passion fruit-elderflower cocktail. Seger gets most of his aromatics from Merz Apothecary in Chicago, known locally as “the witchcraft shop.” They sell their goods internationally on www.smallflower.com.
Seger infuses each herb separately then makes a micro-blend, mixing together a fraction of each until he reaches his desired result (“as bitter as Angostura, but more aromatic and complex”). Some of the botanicals below are pricey, and high-grade spirits are thrown in the mix, so separate infusing and slower mixing is best. Seger’s first batch had too much horehound and “smelled like a hamster cage.” He added Brazilian rosewood, and then it smelled like an aromatherapy parlor, “not in a good way. That was an expensive experiment.”
Step 1: Combine aromatics (roots, plants, herbs or fruits) with alcohol. A pre-made bitter mixture (like Maria Treben, used below) can serve as a base.
Step 2: Seal container and infuse, shaking daily, until desired intensity is reached.
Step 3: Combine infusions (if working with more than one), and balance flavor with herb extracts (Seger uses lavender, passionflower, wormwood and rosewood).
Step 4: Let marry overnight, then bottle.