Standing proud under the clear spring sky, a bright yellow gentiana lutea flower blooms on the alpine slopes of the Pyrenees. Harvested for thousands of years, these statuesque plants have roots that are valued as a restorative cure, digestive and flavouring. From the armies of Illyria in 180 BC to 18th century dinner parties, to the US military hospital in Angostura (now Bolivar), Venezuela, where the eponymously named ‘stomachic’ was first invented by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, gentian root has been put to use around the world in all sorts of ways.
Faintly sweet and profoundly bitter, today gentian root is most commonly used as the heart of cocktail ‘bitters’, the key ingredient in any mixed drink where an acerbic depth is called for.
Whether it’s Stanley Tucci’s negroni masterclass (his viral cocktail-making videos have been cited as contributing to Campari’s sales jump of 46% in 2020 ), or an increased interest in traditional cocktails like Manhattans or Old Fashioneds but a lack of access to them, the home mixology mentality brought on by the pandemic has given bitters a boost. The most famous bitters manufacturer, Angostura, reported a significant shift from trade to home sales as a result of Covid-19, contributing to a positive first quarter in 2020, while inventive new cocktail bitters brands have been springing up like, well, gentiana plants, with flavours ranging from the classic to the bizarre (popping candy, smoke, or black truffle bitters anyone?). “We’re seeing an increase in different types of bitters, from cocktail bitters to Amaros and new iterations of the aperitivo,” The Whisky Exchange’s head of buying Dawn Davies told the Telegraph in a recent article on drinks predictions for 2022. “This trend is coming off the back of the negroni-making phase of lockdown and people wanting to pep up gin and tonics without needing tonnes of garnishes.”
But it’s not just getting DIY with signature bitter cocktails that’s on the up. People are making their own bitters too. Hailing from the same school of thought as homebrewing (which also saw a surge in the pandemic), making bitters takes time, patience and diligence, seeking out the right ingredients and following the rather onerous process to be sure of success.
All traits I am not known for possessing. But regardless, as 2021 heaved into view and the prospect of another lockdown (and more homeschooling) hit hard, I decided to give it a whirl.
First things first, I had to get hold of some gentian root. With a trip to the Pyrenees to harvest my own firmly off the cards, I did some online digging and ordered a packet. A few days later an envelope filled with tiny pieces of wood chipping arrived. Surely this wasn’t the sought-after ingredient? It looked more like a scoopful of the organic cushioning used in playgrounds to prevent broken bones. And it didn’t smell of much either. Dubious about wasting my time and energy on these little sticks, I could see only one logical thing to do.
How did it taste? You guessed it. Bitter. And woody. Not something I’ll be doing again in a hurry. But at least I knew what I was dealing with now. My first attempt was an abject failure. Jellification took out my grapefruit bitters (I later learnt that if you don’t remove all the pith – like the instructions tell you to – your mixture can turn to mush thanks to fruit’s pesky pectins), while my orange bitters succumbed to death by oven, as I attempted to speed up the process of air-drying orange peel with disastrous results (patience, as mentioned, not a virtue of mine).
But I wasn’t going to give in. I needed to crack this. My drinks cabinet was counting on me. So I tried again. Another batch of orange bitters loomed. And this time, I decided to document the process in the hope it would make me a more meticulous student. Did it work?
You can be the judge of that. The plus side of DIY bitters is that, if you do it right and none of your batch spoils, you get copious amounts of bitters to play with.
Enough to keep you in cocktails for a year.
Or to quench the thirst of say, an entire audience attending an evening of roots-inspired talks and inspiration. More on that soon…
1. So it begins. Following the instructions for making Orange Bitters as laid out in Brad Thomas Parson’s Bitters: A Spirited History (Ten Speed Press, 2011).
2. Putting it all in… gentian root, coriander seeds, so much orange peel, oh and who knew allspice berries were so big? Cover in alcohol and store in a dark place to steep for two weeks.
3. Don’t forget to shake (like I did, regularly).
4. Straining time. The book recommends muslin. I used a V60 dripper and a fabric coffee filter. Work with what you have, I say. Seemed to do the trick.
5. Separating out the solids, then boiling them up in a pan of water and leaving that to steep for a week. A lot of steeping, a lot of weeks.
6. Combining all the liquids, adding sugar syrup (another component to make)…
7. …and finally decanting. Then sampling!
8. Mine’s a Manhattan ( 1 shot Rye or Canadian whisky, ½ shot Sweet red vermouth, Dash of DIY Orange bitters, Orange slice and Maraschino cherry to garnish). You?
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