In continuing with my little sidecar Bitters adventure I’ve been on: I recently participated with some friends in a craft fair; these friends and I have each been experimenting with making Bitters this year, so we thought it might be fun to collaborate on a “cocktail kit”. One of the friends is a fairly accomplished (and incredibly knowledgeable) bartender, so her idea was to come up with several interesting Bitters flavors, accompany them with some equally-interesting flavored syrups, and then develop some cocktail recipes that made use of everything.
Because we had a deadline to have everything ready, in the interest of buying myself more iteration time I pressed forward with my experiments to shorten the process of making bitters. I was recently at dinner at Haven in downtown Oakland and was chatting with the bartender about his house-made bitters and liqueurs; I asked him how he made his liqueurs, and he mentioned leveraging the kitchen’s sous vide setup to rapid-infuse spirits with fruits. When I got home I immediately started searching the intertubez for more information about this, curious if anyone had tried this technique for making bitters (or, at least, if they had written about it). I couldn’t find much; there was one article wherein the author describes using sous vide with gin and juniper to heighten the juniper flavor (assisted by the inimitable David Barzelay, I was excited to find), which was all I needed to confirm that this was probably Science Worth Doing.
I came up with three flavor profiles I wanted to play with:
- “Napa” bitters, made with rosemary, fennel, fig, and black pepper, aged in a port wine barrel that a friend loaned me
- “Bay” bitters, made with bay leaf, apple, date, and juniper berries
- “Granny” bitters, made with rose, pistachio, vanilla, and walnut
My friends came up with a few others:
- “Manhattan” bitters, containing traditional flavors of clove, vanilla, cardamom, orange
- “Barbados” bitters, made from rum, lime, and various Tiki-style flavors
- “Temple” bitters, stemming from the idea of making bitters from Grenadine
I’d never made any of these before, and all my recipes for bitters are measured to account for a slow, 4-week-long infusion process. I wanted to try sous-vide, but wasn’t sure what temperature to aim for, how long it should take, or how much product I needed for the infusion. I started with the same amounts called for in the slow-infusion recipes, and arbitrarily chose 135F and 2 hours as starting points for my experiments.
These values turned out to be not-too-far off the mark. The most obvious thing I noticed from this approach is that some ingredients infused extremely well (vanilla, juniper berries, the fruits), while others came out tasting ‘cooked’ (the bay and rosemary especially). Their contribution was clear and present but some of the more-delicate notes you get from super-fresh herbs was lost. The ingredient that suffered the most was the rose petals; their delicate scent was crushed under the weight of the nuts and vanilla.
The cool thing was that I didn’t have to start over; I just built on top of the foundation the sous vide offered. I added more rose petals, rosemary, bay, and other ingredients that I felt didn’t stand up to the heat, and let this mix infuse at room temperature for a few days. The good thing is that herbs infuse much more quickly than ‘hard’ spices or woods, so I could divide the process into two fast steps: sous vide infusion of hearty flavors, then cold infusion of delicate stuff. Plus, because I was building on a layer of cooked herbs, there was quite a bit of depth and complexity to their notes. In the end I was pretty happy with each of the flavors, and we came up with some nice cocktails to build off them. The Napa one I felt was the most interesting and well-balanced, while the Rose one (while I personally really loved it) was more of a challenge (Rose is a really polarizing flavor, and it’s tough to wrangle it with other ingredients).
We paired our bitters flavors with 4 flavored syrups to use in place of traditional simple syrup. Some of the cocktails flavor pairings we came up with were:
- Brandy, Gin, Lemon, Napa Bitters, Late Harvest Cordial (a syrup made from reduced Zinfandel wine from a local vineyard)
- Mezcal, Lime, Cinnamon-Vanilla Syrup, Granny Bitters
- Bourbon, Demerara Syrup, Bay Bitters
Sarah helped brand everything for us, and we chose the name “Park Avenue Provisions” to sell under (the craft fair was on Park Avenue in Emeryville). It ended up going pretty well and we sold out of most of what we’d made, which was pretty surprising/cool to me! Maybe I’ll try this again next year…