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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bitters, Tinctures, etc.

I'm working on my first experiment in creating bitters and tinctures for cocktails. I started by buying a bunch of spices and herbs from Revival Market. One of the more interesting finds was some salt from a mysterious salt mine in Galveston called "Jurassic Salt"--the clerk tells me it's over 250 million years old.
A couple of things I've been thinking about while getting started on this:
Cocktails are like cover songs: You should only make them if they improve on the original or take it an entirely different direction. I've had a number of bourbon-based cocktails or Aviation gin-based cocktails that made me wish I was just drinking a good bourbon or Aviation martini.
Similarly, I have a concern about this whole endeavor: The world of tinctures, infusions, and decoctions comes perilously close to the world of crappy fruit- and vegetable-infused liquors. These infusions rarely improve on the original, and they usually start with a low-quality spirit. My plan is only "season" cocktails with tinctures and homemade bitters.
All that said, the important thing for now is to keep an open mind and put an emphasis on experimentation.
First, an important distinction between tinctures and bitters, because they are actually very similar:
Bitters is "an alcoholic beverage that is flavored with herbal essences and has a bitter or bittersweet flavor," according to Wikipedia. They commonly have an alcoholic strength of 45% ABV. They seem much more common for cocktails and alcoholic beverages.
Tinctures, by contrast, have a stronger association with health benefits (as described here). Wikipedia says that "a tincture is an alcoholic extract (e.g. of leaves or other plant material) or solution of a non-volatile substance (e.g. of iodine, mercurochrome). To qualify as a tincture, the alcoholic extract is to have an ethanol percentage of at least 40-60% (80-120 proof) (sometimes a 90% (180 proof) pure liquid is even achieved).
Aside from having a specific "bitter" flavor, the big difference seems to be with solubility. That being the case, I'm not sure if what I'm making would be considered bitters or tinctures, as I'm using 190-proof grain alcohol for all of them.
Here's what I started with:
- Jurassic Salt
- Fennel seeds/Cardamom seeds, this is the only one that I mixed while it sits. I think they complement each other well.
- Star Anise, the classic bitters ingredient, delicious licorice smell
- Long Thai Peppercorn, I've never seen these before. They look pretty cool and they smell delicious. We'll see how it turns out. I was thinking of trying a salt and pepper tincture, which might be interesting.
- Hot Curry, who the hell knows. We'll see.
- Lavender, reminds me of using Creme de Violette.
- Black Mustard Seed, I'm really hoping that this will bring out some flavor when it's concentrated.
- Thai Chilies, this came from the idea of doing a Sriracha bitters. Eventually I might get all the ingredients in Sriracha and put them all together.
- Cinnamon, seems like a given.
- Jamaican Allspice, Joey had an idea for a Jamaican cocktail that sounds incredible so I thought this would be a good start.
- Pistachio nuts, Who the hell knows. Could be awesome.
- Poppy Seed, Seems like a given.
- Orange, I used the peel of two clementines for this one.
- Apple, Again, I only used the peel and the seeds. I've read that the sugars in fruit can overwhelm the bitter flavors brought out of the peel.
My method is pretty simple: I add about half the jar with the herb/spice I'm using, and fill the rest with grain alcohol. I seal the jar so the alcohol doesn't evaporate, and then put the contents in either a brown paper bag or a cabinet so light doesn't hit it. They say you should shake the jar every day to extract the most of the herb's essence. The total time should be about two weeks. I'll update later with results!


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