Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Homemade Coffee Bitters

One of the things I try to do on this blog is not be redundant toward subjects that have already been touched upon by people smarter than I. For example, I began this blog with the beginning of my Cask series, an experiment with at-home spirit aging, something about which had been scarcely written. Also, the reviews on this site are of products for which there are scant reviews already. My original remixes tend to be fairly unorthodox, and not simply echoes of what you'll see in a book or another booze blog. Ultimately, I'm not going to pretend that I'm more clever than I really am, and so I choose only to write about things which might sound interesting coming from me in particular.

So, when I finally decided that it was time for me to try my hand at making my own bitters, I knew that I didn't want to simply start with the most-popular aromatic-type bitters. Aromatic bitters are typically made with a plethora of roots, spices, and herbs. Instead of simply finding some zany twist to some popular type of bitters, I instead sought to create a type of bitters that I always wished existed (or rather, wished was easier to obtain): coffee bitters.

How does one make bitters? Fairly simply: you infuse a bunch of crap in alcohol (not unlike some of my infusion experiments), but instead of stopping the infusion when the flavor is modest and palatable, you let it infuse for days, weeks, or months. And then sometimes, you remove the flavoring material, and infuse the alcohol again with more material. What you're going for is a result that is undrinkable, literally. In the end, what you want is something that is generally high in percentage of alcohol, overwhelmingly strong in flavor, and intensely bitter. Even though these attributes are usually negative, none of them are negative when you apply your finished product one dash at a time.

Someone who's been doing some pretty interesting stuff lately with bitters is CaptainMcBoozy. He's given me advice on making bitters, but I find that he and I stand separately on what appear to be two different schools on bitters fabrication. The Captain likes flying by the seat of his pants, throwing all his ingredients in one jar of alcohol, and infusing it until it's done. I myself am much more pessimistic about my chances of success, and so I subscribe to how Jamie Boudreau does it: infuse each flavor separately into its own tincture, and experiment with blending the tinctures in different proportions until you have it right. Otherwise, you greatly risk destroying your bitters; a pinch too much of any one ingredient can make it taste completely wrong.

Jacob Grier made some coffee bitters of his own, but my recipe took a very different flavor approach.

So for my coffee bitters, my process was fairly simple:

1) get 3 jars/bottles

2) put coffee grounds (I used Starbucks Summer Blend) in the first bottle, cinnamon sticks in the second bottle, and wormwood in the third bottle*

3) pour a mixture of vodka and grain alcohol in the bottles, enough to cover the contents completely

4) wait at least 2 weeks

5) strain each bottle (using a coffee filter, pictured right), and re-infuse them with new contents if you find that their flavor is not yet strong enough for your liking

6) store the tinctures separately, mix them in various combinations until you find one that tastes good (drunk with another spirit, not necessarily tasted alone)

7) mix more in those ideal proportions, and bottle it

Captain McBoozy recommends using Everclear as his solvent of choice. In order to save money, I use a mixture of vodka (80 proof) and grain alcohol (190 proof) that balances out to about 140 proof. A higher proof solvent with give you more "chemical surface area" (as I once read it so eloquently put) to capture the solute's flavors, and more specifically, its alcohol-soluble compounds. A simple vodka wouldn't do quite the same thing.

Where the hell do you get bitters bottles? Well, I don't know, really. The bitters-style cap that's meant for dashing is not something easily obtained. My solution is one that works fairly well: I go to, which is an absolutely fabulous site. There, you can buy just about any type of bottle you want(some of mine are pictured above). While they don't have dasher bottles, they do have dropper bottles and spray bottles, both of which, I find, apply bitters in an acceptable way (though you have to get a feel for how much to use using these new methods).

*Wormwood isn't easy to find. There are websites that sell herbs which you can order from, but I was lucky enough to find it in a local hispanic market. Trawl your local ethnic markets, and if they have an herb/spice/root section, be sure to look for it. It also may be useful to learn what your desired thing is called in a target language. I knew that wormwood was ajenjo in spanish, and I found it.

The coffee bitters ended up quite good. They ended up being a combination of tinctures of coffee, cinnamon, and wormwood, with a little vanilla extract in there as well. I could have tried to make my own vanilla tincture, but vanilla beans are very expensive, and I expect it would have cost me about 20 dollars to get any respectable amount of it infused.

The bitters taste most strongly of a burnt and smokey flavor, which let the moderate coffee flavor sit in back, fairly muted. The spiciness of the cinnamon works well with the smokiness, and the vanilla is there to soften everything. The wormwood provides little to no flavor, and instead serves to make everything more bitter, though this concoction is on the less-bitter side (compared to a commercial bitters). These bitters of mine may not actually be quite bitter enough. I'll just have to try harder next time.

What can these bitters do? Well, I find that these are best in a Scotch Old Fashioned(pictured above), for some reason. Perhaps the smokiness of the bitters plays well in scotch. The coffee bitters also go well in rum and rye whiskey. Both Rob Roys and rye Manhattans play nice with them.

I encourage you to try something like this. All you need is some high proof vodka, some spices/herbs/roots/whatever, some bottles, and some time! Combine your favorite flavors, and you can make your very own personal bitters!


  1. They do have dasher bottles. One is the European-style dasher bottle and the other is an insert you put into their Woozy bottles a/k/a "Woozy Plug Dripper Insert" that makes something akin to an Angostura-style bottle.

  2. Just think—you could wrap the bottles in paper that would soak up the stuff that escapes from the space where the plastic doesn’t quite seal to the neck of the bottle, like a certain leading brand.

  3. Well done. I'll get my behind in motion and get my own post up soon (re: the goods that were sent)!