Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Home-Made Bitters Experiments: Cola and Malta

After several months of false-starts and procrastination, I finally concocted my own home-made bitters. I spent a little too much time making the necessary arrangements. But once I acquired the more obscure ingredients the project was fairly easy to undertake.

My mission was to create two types of bitters for my first solo attempt: a cola bitters and a malta bitters.

Making Home-Made Bitters

I painstakingly gathered the ingredients that were listed on the literature that Derek Brown passed out to us at the first class in The Columbia Room. Naturally, he provided some insight as to where these ingredients could be found. One location that he mentioned was a Chinese gift shop in Chinatown. The other was online at Mountain Rose Herbs. I utilized both for this project.

Some minor variation made its way into the process but I tried to follow the instructions as best I could.

Last year, I mentioned that Brown’s method of making bitters suggested two types of blends: a bitter and an aromatic blend. Creating both blends gives one more control in balancing the ratios between the two.

In the basic bitter blend, I used:
- 1/2 tbsp wormwood
- 1 tbsp quassia bark
- 1 tbsp dried dandelion
- 1 tbsp gentian root

In the basic aromatic blend I used:
- 1 tbsp cassia bark
- 1 tbsp anise seed
- 1 tbsp caraway
- 1 tbsp coriander
- 1 tbsp dried lemon peel
- 2 tbsp dried orange peel

I put each set of ingredients into a jar with 25 ounces of 100 proof neutral grain spirit (Absolut 100 vodka).

First, I let the basic bitter blend steep in vodka for 48 hours. Then, I removed the ingredients from the vodka and cooked them in water for 3-5 minutes. Once cooked, I returned the ingredients to the vodka and allowed everything to steep for 48 more hours.

For the aromatic blend, I let the ingredients steep in vodka for 10 days. Then, I removed the ingredients from the vodka and cooked them in water for 3-5 minutes. Once cooked, I returned the ingredients to the vodka and allowed everything steep for 5 more days.

Once both sets of ingredients had macerated to their prescribed point, I strained both liquids. The result was two jars of bitters, basic and aromatic, ready for production.

Not content in simply creating a generic home-made tincture, I set out to add the flavors.

To do so, I simply reduced each soft drink in a pot and added the syrup into the bitters, adjusting as needed. The malta was very tricky because it hardened quickly. But with enough persistence I managed to make it work.

Why cola bitters? First, cola is a relatively unique flavor to utilize outside of its typical purpose as refreshment. Second, I did so admittedly because it was very easy to reduce a soft drink and deliver it to a bitters solution.

Why malta bitters? After realizing one could formulate cola bitters I immediately looked to the more obscure cousins of the ubiquitous American soft drink. I had, after all, been looking for an attention-provoking application for this somewhat unfamiliar product.

So what is malta? Malta is an non-alcoholic malt-beverage primarily enjoyed in various Caribbean islands - most notably Puerto Rico. According to an unidentified source in Wikipedia, some consider the modern day soda pop to be a descendant of this drink (which is something I had never heard before but found fascinating, if true).

I am particularly familiar with this product because Goya’s malta was once a favorite of my father who immigrated to the U.S. from the unincorporated territory as a teenager.

But I was also reminded a few years ago of malta while watching the fourth season of Top Chef. Fans of the show may remember how Richard Blais utilized the rich and molasses-like beverage for his pork dish which was featured, along with the other cheftestants' dishes, at a Puerto Rican villa.

From an initial thought, I can image there may be fruitful combinations made with either one of these concoctions if applied to rum or rhum. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

In the end, I am glad I stayed focused on the objective and followed the process as I had intended. I’ll be testing out the new bitters flavors in cocktails as I am bartending at Last Exit so please don't hesitate to stop in and challenge my skills.


  1. I forgot to mention in this piece that the cola bitters idea came from Derek Brown during the bitters class. He had mentioned this as a possibility. I simply guessed what the method would be although I'm sure there would be a slightly different result roasting the syrup a little more (which I may do next time) or obtaining syrup from a soft-drink package in the back of the house at the bar.

  2. Was the boiling step suggested by Derek? What is it supposed to do?

    Which nights do you work at Last Exit?

  3. Good to hear from you DJ!

    Yes. The cooking of the ingredients was listed in the instructions Derek provided. He didn't say much about that step IIRC. But I think the purpose is to jolt some of the flavors and give you a little more mileage out of them. Same sort of concept I believe as when Gina Chersevani heats up spices before throwing them into one of her cocktails.

    I only work Saturdays PM. LE opens at 7pm and last call is at 2:30am. It's owned by the same folks who own Tonic. They asked me to come up and work w/ them at this new concept in Mt Pleasant.

    Unfortunately, I'll be out this coming Saturday (06/25) as I'll be in NYC (while I'm there I'll be going to check out the tiki bar PKNY aka Painkiller to get a quote regarding this IP issue with Pusser's Rum).

    So try and come in the next weekend my friend. We need to meet finally!

  4. I'll need to wait a bit. I'm moving next week, so things are really busy. Also, I live in the VA 'burbs, so getting into the city (esp. the northern part) is a whole production.

    It'd be great if you could email me at so I can easier contact you in the future! Thanks!

  5. FYI, this happened yesterday: