Traditional Cooking Chemicals (part 8) - Alcohol - Extracts for drinks - Regan's Orange Bitters No. 5

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4.1. Extracts for drinks

Bitters are to bartenders what extracts and spices are to chefs: they provide flavor with minimal impact on texture, volume, or other variables. Bitters refers to any extract that includes a bittering agent, such as gentian, quinine, or citrus rind. Angostura bitters is the “generic” bitter—one of the few to have survived through the Prohibition era—and is what most people think of when a recipe calls for bitters. Campari is also a bitter, although not commonly described this way. Bitters come in a range of flavors: from the complex and spicy (clove, anise, cinnamon) to the bright and clean (orange, grapefruit, mint).

Bitters can be used as flavorings in things besides alcoholic drinks. Try a dash of bitters in soda water, along with a slice of lime. Since they are a subset of extracts, you can use them in any place where a bitter extract would work. You can balance out bitterness with the addition of sugar, just as is done in an old-fashioned cocktail. Bitters as an accent flavor in a chocolate truffle? As part of a dressing? Try it!

Bitters recipes can be quite complicated, requiring exotic ingredients and involving dozens of steps taking upward of a month. If you want to try your hand at one of the more involved recipes, try the one that follows here. For additional recipes, pick up Gary Regan’s book, The Joy of Mixology (Clarkson Potter), from which the recipe on the following page is adapted with permission. His recipe uses both ethanol and water as solvents. The ethanol at the beginning dissolves one set of organic compounds present in the spices. Later, the water dissolves a different set. Notice that the ethanol that contains the first set of alcohol-solvent organic compounds is never subjected to heat!

Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 5

Combine in a large jar:

2 cups (450g) grain alcohol such as Everclear or vodka

½ cup (160g) water

8 oz (250g) dried orange peel

½ teaspoon (3g) caraway seeds

1 teaspoon (2g) quassia chips

1 teaspoon (2g) cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon (0.75g) cinchona bark, powdered

1 teaspoon (0.50g) coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon (0.25g) gentian

Make sure that the liquid covers the dry ingredients, adding more grain alcohol if necessary, and screw on the lid. Shake vigorously to mix, about 20 seconds, once a day for two weeks.

After two weeks, remove the solids, boil them in water, and then add them to the alcohol again. You can separate the liquid from the solids by straining it with a cheesecloth or fine sieve, returning the liquid to the jar and placing the solids into a saucepan. Muddle the solids with a pestle so that the seeds are broken open. In the saucepan with the solids, add:

3 ½ cups (800g) water

Bring to a boil and then simmer with lid on for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and allow to return to room temperature for about an hour. Once cool, recombine the solids and water with the alcoholic liquid in the jar.

Shake vigorously for 30 seconds once a day for at least a week. Then strain out the solids and discard them.

Next, we’ll make a sugar syrup to add to the liquid. In an empty saucepan, bring to medium heat:

1 cup (200g) sugar

Once the sugar starts to melt, stir constantly until the sugar caramelizes to a dark brown color.

Allow to cool for a few minutes. Add the liquid to the sugar, stirring it until entirely dissolved. Transfer liquid to jar and let rest for a week.

After a week, remove any solids that are floating and decant the clear liquid into another container, leaving behind the sediment.

You should have about 12 fluid ounces (350 ml) of liquid at this point. Add 6 ounces (180 ml) of water, shake thoroughly, and transfer to a bitters bottle (amber or other opaque bottle to prevent light from breaking down some of the organic compounds).


  • When using bitters, a “dash” is a solid pour from a bottle with a dash cap: bottle right-side up, rotate 180 degrees, and back. It’s not a side trickle. Your “dashes” will be larger as the bottle gets emptier due to the change in air volume in the bottle, but for practical purposes at home, it’s probably not worth breaking out the milligram scale. (But if you do, a quick check with my scale shows roughly 6 dashes to the gram.)

  • A number of online sites exist for ordering bitters, in case you get taken with them but don’t want to spend the time making them.

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