Little Bottles of Bitters are Big Behind Bars

On a low shelf in the darkened CVI root cellar are rows of small glass bottles with handwritten labels containing liquids in red, amber, green, gold, umber, brown, orange. The tinctures are made from flowers, leaves, herbs, bark, vegetables, and whatever else CVI Wine Steward and mixologist Elizabeth Studer thinks might make a bigger, better bitters bar.

Bitters are alcoholic preparations made by infusing alcohol with botanical matter. As the name implies, the final product is characteristically bitter, sour or bittersweet. Originally developed as patent medicines and digestive aids, today’s bitters are predominantly used to flavor, enhance and balance sophisticated cocktails.

For her house-made bitters, Studer has measured amounts of various tinctures made from marigold, root beer leaf, watercress blooms, mustard pod, lemon balm, carrot, lavender, basil, chocolate mint, lucky sorrel, thyme blossom, cucumber, English mint and even baby beets.

“Any good cocktail will have your base spirit, but you also have a bitter element to it,” said Studer. “What is your bitter element? Gentian root, dandelion root, artichoke leaf, lemon peel. You have your acid element, and sometimes a sweeter side as well. It’s about finding that balance between the bitter and the acid and the spirit and the sweetness. Your basic cocktail is the culmination of those four elements.”

The popularity of bitters is on the rise, and with it an ever-growing variety of new, unique, craft and small batch bitters options. For Studer, who directs the CVI in-house beverage program, bitters are a perfect fit in the CVI’s zero waste philosophy.

TCG: Bitters have been around for a long time, right?

LS: In the 1800s bitters were served to fortify the troops because of the medicinal properties of the herbs. They’ve long been used as digestive tonics after meals. Now they bring cocktails into balance.

TCG: You’re making a digestif today. What tinctures will you be blending?

LS: I’ll use licorice as the bittering agent. Licorice settles the stomach. Cucumber is very cleansing. Mint is stomach soothing. Chamomile. Lemon. Just smelling it makes me feel better!

TCG: They are having a bit of a moment in the spotlight.

TCG: You have a mason jar full of flowers there. Nasturtium bitters?

LS: It’ll be a tincture. Single ingredient infusions are tinctures. Bitters are actually tinctures that are all blended together.

TCG: They’re gorgeous.

LZ: They are beautiful. I almost feel bad putting them in a jar. This’ll be a lot of fun. It’ll be neat to see how the pigment comes out. The alcohol helps preserve the color.

TCG: What will a nasturtium tincture taste like?

LS: This will make a very spicy infusion. The flavor will be peppery and spicy. Not necessarily jalapeno hot, more of a white pepper spice.

TCG: What are you soaking them in?

LS: Everclear grain alcohol, 151 proof.

TCG: That’s pretty hardcore.

LS: It pulls out oils from flowers and herbs a little quicker.

TCG: How long does it take?

LS: Some infuse faster, some take longer. If it hasn’t taken on that flavor yet, I’ll let it go a little longer. It will soak for a week to a month. You just put it in the dark root cellar. Shake it every couple of days to let the volatile oils come out. Taste as you go.

TCG: Give us an example of some infusions that have eliminated kitchen waste.

LS: I did beet bitters from pulp remaining after I juiced beets for a beet blush punch. The beet pulp and tops soaked in the cellar for three months. It’s a beautiful color. I did one with the leftovers from shaved carrots. It would have gone to the pigs, but instead it’s going in your cocktail!

TCG: What do you love about sourcing bitters ingredients from The Chef’s Garden?

LS: The herbs from the farm are so potent with volatile organic compounds. You can smell the volatile oils. Happy plants make healthy oils. Lots of oils make the best compounds. That’s why I like using Chef’s Garden products.

TCG: What about the scope of variety and possibility?

LS: I love it. When I’m doing bespoke cocktails, I can craft a specific bitter for every drink.

TCG: Any particularly memorable ones so far?

LS: I did a honeybee bitters blend as an homage to our honeybees for the honeybee dinner. That one was definitely an ode to the bees and what they pollinate here on the property. So my main bittering agent was dandelion root, because obviously you see dandelions all the time. Also the flowering herbs, and the spruce tips because all of our bee hives are sheltered by all those spruce trees. That bitters really told the story of the bees and how they live here on CVI Lane. There were 11 elements. Dandelion, spruce tips, black walnut leaf, marigold, lavender blossoms, basil, mint, sage, thyme blossom, pineapple weed ─ everything that’s in their life on a daily basis.

TCG: How are you using it today?

LS: In a champagne cocktail.

TCG: Any advice for people who want to attempt making their own tinctures and bitters?

LS: Make sure the plant materials are all submerged in the alcohol or they will oxidize. Store them in dark bottles or in a darkened place. Double strain everything to get the plant material out of the infusion. Strain it, then re-strain it through a coffee filter. Use very specific measuring spoons so you can recreate it.

TCG: What’s next on the bitters horizon?

LS: Water with bitters is pretty popular right now.