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All About Bitters (Part 1)


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#481 David Santucci

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 09:55 AM

David I'd be very interested to know if/how this worked out for you ... Or did you even think it was worth the effort?

Well, it's not a lot of effort, so I'd say it's worth it. You don't even have to expend the effort of waiting -- I just used some out of the jar whenever I felt like it. Flavor definitely changed, but I don't know if that is because of the oak or just because of time. Didn't do the control experiment.

However, I do have some that is still in the jar with the oak -- I will do a comparison tonight with the stuff I put in a dropper bottle after a few months.

#482 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 10:18 AM

David I'd be very interested to know if/how this worked out for you ... Or did you even think it was worth the effort?

Well, it's not a lot of effort, so I'd say it's worth it. You don't even have to expend the effort of waiting -- I just used some out of the jar whenever I felt like it. Flavor definitely changed, but I don't know if that is because of the oak or just because of time. Didn't do the control experiment.

However, I do have some that is still in the jar with the oak -- I will do a comparison tonight with the stuff I put in a dropper bottle after a few months.

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What kind of chips did you use? Anything special?
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#483 Yojimbo

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 06:12 PM

Has anyone ever had any success sourcing Bay Rum leaves (Pimenta racemosa)? The essential oil comes up all over the place but I've been searching on and off for years for a source for the leaves, to no avail. Can the oil be subbed, as David Santucci did, or do I need to go to Florida and gather some myself?

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Chris,

You might try contacting Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead, FL (Homestead's the Mother Lode of tropical plants for most of the US, lots of nurseries there) -- if they can't get fresh leaves themselves, they can probably put you in touch with someone who can -- alas, I gave my bay rum tree away last spring, or I could've supplied you with a bunch myself!

It's fascinating reading your list of tinctures and tasting notes; regarding health effects, just to be cautious I'm pretty sure calamus root has a suspected carcinogen in it. It used to be a fairly popular ingredient in home remedies and toilet products, but I have no idea if any modern testing has been done.

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#484 David Santucci

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 06:31 PM

However, I do have some that is still in the jar with the oak -- I will do a comparison tonight with the stuff I put in a dropper bottle after a few months.

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Worth it.

Did this comparison: 2 oz WT Rye, 1/4 oz. simple, split in two, 6 drops in each, found the one made with stuff that had been with the oak all this time much more enjoyable. I think the oak kinda tones down the prickliness of all that clove. I say leave it in/with oak as long as you can.

What kind of chips did you use? Anything special?

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Bought the chips in a homebrew store. They were "American Oak, House Toast". They are not as charred as bourbon barrels I have seen. You might want to have a look around your local brew store; as I recall mine at the time (American Brewmaster in Raleigh -- great store) had a few different choices: definitely American and French, and maybe different levels of toast.

#485 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 10:40 PM

However, I do have some that is still in the jar with the oak -- I will do a comparison tonight with the stuff I put in a dropper bottle after a few months.

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Worth it.

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Thanks for the notes, it's really quite remarkable the impact it has but I guess that's sort of the point. I'm going to research this a bit more and see what else I can find out. The bourbon barrel chips are very tempting.

I'd read that oak chips impart flavor much faster than a barrel, at least in winemaking. I wonder what the approximate equivalents would be...seems like your two years with chips would equate to quite a long time in barrels, assuming the same principles hold, probably longer than the original ever saw in wood. Not that thats a bad thing of course.
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#486 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 01:34 PM

Strained the wormwood bitters today but I'll have to wait to finish them...the color is an extraordinarily dark green, and the nose is mainly...mint. Hmm. Lost about 1/3 of my liquid volume it looks like, which is more than I expected. The dried wormwood must be really dehydrated.

Also whipped up a batch of Johnder's grapefruit bitters. Easy enough, should be lots of fun. These seem like they may require more dilution than called for...if my math is right (this thread has proven it may not be), these will still come out well over 100 proof...I presume Mr. Johnder was working with a 151 grain alcohol instead of the 190 I have here?
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#487 slkinsey

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 01:55 PM

I'd read that oak chips impart flavor much faster than a barrel, at least in winemaking. I wonder what the approximate equivalents would be...seems like your two years with chips would equate to quite a long time in barrels, assuming the same principles hold, probably longer than the original ever saw in wood. Not that thats a bad thing of course.

At some point it comes down to simple math on the internal-surface-area-to-volume ratio. A standard 60 gallon barrel is approximately 38 inches tall with a 27 inch base and top. That works out to an inner surface area of around 2,170 square inches (this is actually probably overstating it a bit). Do the math: This equals around 36 square inches of internal surface area per gallon, or around 0.28 square inches of internal surface area per ounce. Smalller barrels will, of course, have a larger amount of internal surface area per ounce due to geometry. But anyway, it seems unlikely to me that it would be more than one square inch per ounce. So, think about it: One wood chip soaking in booze may have a surface area of 4 square inches or more. That might be enough to "barrel age" as much as 8 or even 16 ounces of bitters.
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#488 bostonapothecary

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 02:56 PM

I'd read that oak chips impart flavor much faster than a barrel, at least in winemaking. I wonder what the approximate equivalents would be...seems like your two years with chips would equate to quite a long time in barrels, assuming the same principles hold, probably longer than the original ever saw in wood. Not that thats a bad thing of course.

At some point it comes down to simple math on the internal-surface-area-to-volume ratio. A standard 60 gallon barrel is approximately 38 inches tall with a 27 inch base and top. That works out to an inner surface area of around 2,170 square inches (this is actually probably overstating it a bit). Do the math: This equals around 36 square inches of internal surface area per gallon, or around 0.28 square inches of internal surface area per ounce. Smalller barrels will, of course, have a larger amount of internal surface area per ounce due to geometry. But anyway, it seems unlikely to me that it would be more than one square inch per ounce. So, think about it: One wood chip soaking in booze may have a surface area of 4 square inches or more. That might be enough to "barrel age" as much as 8 or even 16 ounces of bitters.

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i think that the barrels used for bitters are intended to be neutral. its probably more about oxidation than the flavor of the oak. so if you are trying to mellow your bitters the chips may not do what you envision.

Edited by bostonapothecary, 21 May 2009 - 02:56 PM.

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#489 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 10:44 PM

I'd read that oak chips impart flavor much faster than a barrel, at least in winemaking. I wonder what the approximate equivalents would be...seems like your two years with chips would equate to quite a long time in barrels, assuming the same principles hold, probably longer than the original ever saw in wood. Not that thats a bad thing of course.

At some point it comes down to simple math on the internal-surface-area-to-volume ratio. A standard 60 gallon barrel is approximately 38 inches tall with a 27 inch base and top. That works out to an inner surface area of around 2,170 square inches (this is actually probably overstating it a bit). Do the math: This equals around 36 square inches of internal surface area per gallon, or around 0.28 square inches of internal surface area per ounce. Smalller barrels will, of course, have a larger amount of internal surface area per ounce due to geometry. But anyway, it seems unlikely to me that it would be more than one square inch per ounce. So, think about it: One wood chip soaking in booze may have a surface area of 4 square inches or more. That might be enough to "barrel age" as much as 8 or even 16 ounces of bitters.

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i think that the barrels used for bitters are intended to be neutral. its probably more about oxidation than the flavor of the oak. so if you are trying to mellow your bitters the chips may not do what you envision.

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I wouldn't have necessarily been surprised that this were true, but for David Santucci's empirical results. Even neutral oak has an effect on flavor though. There used to be a treasure trove of information on Abbott's on the old Drinkboy forums, including, if memory serves, some insights into their aging methods. Sadly, I didn't think to save all that before it was gone, and Google either failed to cache it or my search skills are not up to finding it. As I recall (and this is to be taken with salt unless Dr. Cocktail shows to to confirm) it was used/spent oak vats(?) that it was aged in, and the vats were reused many times, so the level of flavor imparted may have been relatively mild.

I'm beginning to think the way to go might be to split the batch up into several smaller amounts and try different types of wood chips.
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#490 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 11:12 PM

Strained the wormwood bitters today but I'll have to wait to finish them...the color is an extraordinarily dark green, and the nose is mainly...mint. Hmm. Lost about 1/3 of my liquid volume it looks like, which is more than I expected. The dried wormwood must be really dehydrated.

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This turned out to be 4.5 oz of liquid that smelled very strongly of mint and was overwhelmingly bitter. Added 3 scant tsp of burnt sugar syrup and about 1.5 oz of water. No cocktail usage yet but the flavor is now much rounder, with a nice bitter minty finish. I find it interesting the different dimension of bitterness the wormwood gives vs the gentian in the other things, more on the front of the palate and less sharp. This could have some interesting applications.
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#491 Chris Amirault

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 03:24 AM

Keep sharing. I'm overwhelmed by the many tinctures I have and get a headache thining about applications and combinations....
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#492 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 09:42 AM

Grapefruit bitters infusion yielded about 6.75 oz, to which I added 3/4 oz of burnt sugar syrup and 5 oz of water at which point the stuff louched to a dirty dishwater color, which is annoying. The flavor is terriffic though, layered and very subtle with nice bitterness. Haven't tried it in a drink yet but my initial reaction is that more peel might be in order next time if I'm going to dilute so much but it certainly doesn't lack for flavor so we'll hold off on further opinon til trials.
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#493 bostonapothecary

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 10:36 AM

i just wrote somewhat a summary of the bitter beverages chapter of "fenaroli's guide to flavor ingredients" on my blog.

its pretty cool and he talks about "special effects" in bitter beverages where you put an infusion of a bitter principle in a distillate of the same botanical to increase the aroma but reduce the bitter.

something like 2x aroma, 1x bitter.

any guess as to a commercial product that might use "special effects"?

i feel like i smell more quinine in cynar than i taste but who knows...

i have some distilled quinine from an experiment that i could marry with the regular infusion. what kind of hollywood blockbuster bitters should i make?
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#494 slkinsey

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 11:41 AM

i feel like i smell more quinine in cynar than i taste but who knows...

I'm pretty sure that quinine is odorless.

Edited by slkinsey, 22 May 2009 - 12:00 PM.

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#495 MikeHartnett

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 12:31 PM

  Hey there, Chris.

  I'd suggest Tenzing MomoTenzin Momo from here in Seattle.  They are an outstanding herbilst shop, and besides the fact that they are extremely reasonably priced, they'll ship you all that you need.

  They have the gentian root in non-power form and most of the other items described in this discussion.

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Question for anyone who has ordered from this site... What quantity/weight is each herb sold by? It only says "$.85," etc. There's no quantity anywhere that I can tell.

#496 bostonapothecary

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 12:49 PM

i feel like i smell more quinine in cynar than i taste but who knows...

I'm pretty sure that quinine is odorless.

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what ever i bought as quinine definitely has an aroma and is massively bitter. i think the salt you can refine from the raw bark might be odorless, but what is used in beverage is raw and has an aroma.
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#497 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 02:24 PM


  Hey there, Chris.

  I'd suggest Tenzing MomoTenzin Momo from here in Seattle.  They are an outstanding herbilst shop, and besides the fact that they are extremely reasonably priced, they'll ship you all that you need.

  They have the gentian root in non-power form and most of the other items described in this discussion.

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Question for anyone who has ordered from this site... What quantity/weight is each herb sold by? It only says "$.85," etc. There's no quantity anywhere that I can tell.

View Post


I don't think I've actually ordered from here but I remember being equally confused whole looking at it. The link at the top labelled "Online Ordering" brings up the links on the side to categories but the relevant info is easy to miss even though it's right there in front of you (because everyone is looking for the categories). "All Oils are priced at 1/2 fluid ounce, Herbs are priced at 1 ounce each, and Tinctures are 1 fluid ounce."
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#498 David Santucci

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 02:54 PM

i feel like i smell more quinine in cynar than i taste but who knows...

I'm pretty sure that quinine is odorless.

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I can say, from some experiments I did as an undergrad, that rats can tell the difference between sugar pellets and sugar pellets doped with quinine. They taste the quinine pellet once and they never put one in their mouth again.

#499 David Santucci

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 02:59 PM

I wouldn't have necessarily been surprised that this were true, but for David Santucci's empirical results.

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One possible caveat with my experiment: the stuff from the jar with oak chips was unfiltered, while the stuff I bottled was run through a coffee filter.

Unfiltered stuff looks quite a bit less attractive, like water you washed your brush in after painting something black. Maybe in the ugly blackness lies the secret to better flavor.

#500 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 03:47 PM

I wouldn't have necessarily been surprised that this were true, but for David Santucci's empirical results.

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One possible caveat with my experiment: the stuff from the jar with oak chips was unfiltered, while the stuff I bottled was run through a coffee filter.

Unfiltered stuff looks quite a bit less attractive, like water you washed your brush in after painting something black. Maybe in the ugly blackness lies the secret to better flavor.

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I wonder about this myself...Angostura Bitters, for example, are far from clear. To what degree is filtration desireable here?
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#501 David Santucci

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 04:51 PM

I wonder about this myself...Angostura Bitters, for example, are far from clear. To what degree is filtration desireable here?

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I think the big culprit in making the bitters look unpalatable was the powdered benzoin resin. I know others have found a more resinous version -- what have you managed to find?

#502 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 05:31 PM

I wonder about this myself...Angostura Bitters, for example, are far from clear. To what degree is filtration desireable here?

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I think the big culprit in making the bitters look unpalatable was the powdered benzoin resin. I know others have found a more resinous version -- what have you managed to find?

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I used a liquid resin that came in little jars labelled "Benzoin, Siam Liquid (styrax tonkinensis)" Came from somaluna.com. It's a medium-dark brown with almost a faint blue tint to it, fairly viscous but not nearly so much as the gum syrup I made recently. This may be entirely meaningless, but I would say about twice as viscous as a 2:1 simple syrup.
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#503 MikeHartnett

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 05:59 PM

I don't think I've actually ordered from here but I remember being equally confused whole looking at it. The link at the top labelled "Online Ordering" brings up the links on the side to categories but the relevant info is easy to miss even though it's right there in front of you (because everyone is looking for the categories). "All Oils are priced at 1/2 fluid ounce, Herbs are priced at 1 ounce each, and Tinctures are 1 fluid ounce."

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Haha. Thanks. It really is right there.

#504 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 02:13 PM

After fifteen days of soak, today I was able to go to the next step with my Abbott's and was somewhat surprised to only extract about 5 cups of liquid from the 8 cups of booze that went into the jar. The dried spices used, I would imagine, accounted for a lot of that. I'm somewhat curious if cooking the solids with water is going to extract any of the alcohol from the cloves and such. I guess the heat involved would cause most the alcohols present to boil away?

So I have no scientific way to measure the proof of my finished product, only arithmetic, assuming the the liquid came out at the same proof that it went in (120). My tiny bottle of old Abbott's indicates a proof of 100, but a smaller sample bottle apparently of a later formulation states 90. Modern Angostura is 90, Peychaud's is 70, as is Regans. Most aromatic bitters lower in proof than that are not generally highly regarded products. I'm kind of interested in any opinions others might have... lower proof would of course yield more bitters but a higher proof would theoretically result in more concentrated and intense flavors. Thoughts?

Edit for update: The more I thought about this the closer I came to settling on 90 proof and then whaddya know the amount of water that resulted from cooking solids came out to pretty much spot on to do that very thing. Proceeding to the next step now.

Edited by thirtyoneknots, 31 May 2009 - 02:53 PM.

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#505 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 04:06 PM

Ok one more update on the finished product. The jar yielded 5 cups of (presumably) 120 proof infused rye/everclear mix. Once this was straiend off the solids I put the spices in a huge 5 qt skillet with 5 cups water and did a relatively brisk simmer for 35 minutes. This yielded about 11 1/3 oz of water once strained again. I then melted 1 cup of white sugar (Imperial Sugar, from my hometown of course) and once it was nice and brown I added the water to the still-hot melted liquid (unfortunately pressed for time by this stage but it doesn't seem to have hurt anything). Once this had cooled sufficently I measured it again and found 1 2/3 cups of liquid, remarkably the exact amount of nonalcoholic liquid to add to 40 oz of 120 proof to result in a 90 proof finished product. I then added this to the infused booze and then to come up to a nice round 55 oz I put in 3/4 oz each of WT 101 rye and Old Overholt.

If the math is right and nothing changed drastically along the way then I now have 55 oz of a mighty tasty Abbott's replica at 90 proof with about 1/2" of deposit in the bottom. At some point I'll try to filter this out and add some oak chips to simulate the barrel aging but I'm actually pleased as punch at what I've got going on right now. I tasted it several times along the way, even stopping to draw some of the undiluted liquor for an old fashioned (with Old Grand-dad BIB for the courious) and the addition of water and burnt sugar did wonders for the complexity and overall balance of the bitters. Really quite remarkable; the old-fashioned was nice but the bitters seemed awfully subtle in it*...they are now clearly much more balanced and complex-tasting, and this even without the benefit of oak chips or even time in the jar to integrate. I have to say I'm pleased with my investment!



*In fairness, I've rarely seen Abbott's recommended for Old-Fashioneds, mostly for Manhattans, Champagne Cocktails, Martinezes, etc. Interestingly these all have a wine component...coincidence?
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#506 slkinsey

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 04:39 PM

What's the rationale behind diluting the bitters down to 90 proof? Why not leave it at, say, 150 proof?
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#507 Alchemist

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 09:42 PM

I like mine at 80 proof so you get more botanical smell less booze smell.

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#508 thirtyoneknots

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Posted 31 May 2009 - 10:24 PM

What's the rationale behind diluting the bitters down to 90 proof?  Why not leave it at, say, 150 proof?

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At 120 proof the heat overpowered the nuance...they were not a constructive addition to cocktails the 2-3 times I tried them in tests along the way. The water from the cooking process added another dimension and helped round out the flavors. It also had a different character and "shape" if you will than the spirits infused with the exact same material. Adding the water helped smooth out the flavors in an immidiate and extreme way. The burnt sugars added to the bitters also helped make those flavors "pop" more without adding any perceptable sweetness to the bitters themselves. And all this verbage boils down to the same thing that Toby said...so yeah.

Those are the actual effects dilution had, but as far as my rationale behind it...for one I've never seen a bitters recipe that did not call for dilution (at least not one I can recall offhand). Also no commercial cocktail bitters of which I am aware clocked in any higher than 100 proof. When the hobbyist or craft bartender makes his own bitters one can write off the dilution as an economic expedient, to stretch the return on investment by adding a free ingredient to an expensive one. When a commercial operation who is buying untaxed industrial alcohol by the tank car full is shipping out their bitters, which are legally a food additive (no tax), with a proof that moderate I figure their must be a reason. If higher proof in cocktail bitters (or baking extracts, etc) yielded a superior result one would think that someone out there would be doing it. Not a foolproof reasoning but it was good enough for me, which the aforementioned results confirmed as a sound decision. The fact that the amounts worked out so perfectly was a nice bonus as well.

I refrained from any further test runs today but tomorrow some sort of Martinez or Manhattan type thing is in order. Stay tuned. As a comparison I'll probably try out another Old Fashioned identical to the one I made this afternoon as well.

Edited by thirtyoneknots, 31 May 2009 - 10:26 PM.

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#509 slkinsey

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Posted 01 June 2009 - 05:28 AM

Andy, I would actually think that diluting the alcohol down is much more an economic expedient for the commercial producer than the home hobbyist. When one is speaking of real dollars, two tanks of industrial alcohol costs twice as much as one tank. I think it is also the case that products like, say, Angostura bitters are made at an incredibly concentrated strength (this way they don't have to use as many tanks to make it, again reducing cost) and then diluted down to a more reasonable intensity for use.

I get that 80 or 90 proof bitters may give you "more botanical smell less booze smell" coming out of the bitters bottle. I'm more wondering whether this is true once you have dashed that bitters into three ounces of booze and modifier that will all end up at around 72 proof or less once it's diluted by ice.
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#510 Chris Amirault

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Posted 01 June 2009 - 05:51 AM

I'd be interested to hear what others who have developed commercial bitters think about this. I've noticed the effect Sam describes with the tinctures I have: very alcoholic out of the jar/bottle but the boozy nose dissipates in the glass.
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