Housemade bitters at Yusho (Katrina Wittkamp )
Even at the city's best liquor stores, you're not likely to find myrrh-flavored bitters on the shelves. So when beverage director Alex Bachman of Yusho in Avondale mixes up his Cate's Esters cocktail, he has to reach for a bottle of bitters he's made himself.
Cocktails generally contain only a few drops of these botanical alcohols, but bitters can pack such distinct flavors that bartenders pay them a lot of attention. For Bachman, this means experimenting with making his own flavors such as Szechuan peppercorn and soybean, which he is able to tweak to specifically complement his cocktails. It also allows him to recreate classic styles of bitters, like Boker's and Abbott's, that are no longer produced.
"It's an important part of beverage history. It gives us more control over the things we create," Bachman said. "We can tailor the spice, the body, the acidity."
Likewise, at Vincent in Andersonville, beverage director Nick Smith currently is making his own elderberry-fig bitters. Smith did a lot of Internet research before beginning the process, which can take anywhere from a month to close to a year, depending on the type of bitters.
Steeping the herbs and fruits in alcohol, tasting them daily and ultimately blending flavors together requires not only a lot of jars, but a lot of patience.
"Every day I'm just like 'Ugh! I wish they were ready,' because finally blending them to get the flavor you want is the best part," Smith said.
He's hoping the fruits of his experiment will pay off before Christmas, when he will add the elderberry-fig bitters to a bourbon-based cocktail. Smith even said that if all goes well, he'd love for Vincent's chef to incorporate the bitters in a dish.
Mike Ryan, head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar in River North, knows the waiting game well. Making his own bitters was one of the first experiments he tried when he became interested in cocktails, and he currently has a few bottles of his own creations, such as chocolate and orange bitters, behind the bar.
Even when he could buy these flavors commercially, Ryan said sometimes it's worth making his own. The versions of chocolate bitters he found for sale, for example, all seemed too spicy for the vodka cocktail, called the Iron Kimono, that he was creating. His chocolate bitters, he said, have a warming, cacao flavor without any heat.
As craft cocktails have enjoyed a recent revival at popular bars such as Sable, The Whistler and The Violet Hour, Ryan has noticed an increase in the number of spirits companies producing bitters.
"It's amazing. It's gone from a handful--five or six companies--to absolutely everyone having commercial bitters," Ryan said.
Despite the proliferation, Ryan will continue to make a few small batches of his own versions for use in certain drinks.
"It’s a very approachable thing that when you’re done, if you do it right, has really impressive results."
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