Bitters taste like a tincture taken from some older time, a combination of flavors carefully weighed through generations of experimentation and foraging. Each region of the world uses its native plants to create intensely aromatic, often medicinal, plant tonics.
Ethnobotanist Ashley DuVal, a Los Altos native, has developed a sideline in studying these recipes with two friends from graduate school, Selena Ahmed and Rachel Meyer. DuVal met her collaborators more than a decade ago, when they were ethnobotany grad students spending time at the New York Botanical Garden.
Because the three women were all working on culinary plants – tea, eggplant and acai, at the time – they started doing tastings, pairing scientific talk with real-world flavor. The events evolved into a company, Shoots & Roots Bitters, that hosts events and makes and sells experimental bitters and bitters ingredients.
DuVal has a day job as a consultant on genetics and breeding programs within agriculture, studying cacao seedlings. But on the side she continues to host events with Ahmed and Meyer.
The Los Altos area has an opportunity to taste their work later this month, at Hidden Villa’s “Food Worth Celebrating” event, scheduled 4 p.m. Sept. 28. The Shoots & Roots team will be making handcrafted cocktails on the farm as part of the dinner event.
An art and a science
The bitter taste associated with cocktail staples like Campari or Angostura may be the most familiar – but the flavor palate of elixirs, tonics, digestifs and liqueurs can stretch across sweet, sour and even umami, DuVal writes in a new book she co-authored with Ahmed and Meyer. “Botany at the Bar: The Art & Science of Making Bitters” (Roost Books, 2019) includes history lessons and how-tos, ranging from alchemical recipes using common grocery store ingredients to more ambitious foraging forays to make rare concoctions.
“We’re encouraging enthusiasts, bartenders, mixologists – anyone interested in broadening their own base,” DuVal said. “I think a lot of people are intimidated by plants, especially consumption, and rightfully so in that there are some that should be avoided.”
If you haven’t already tried a fancy coffee drink spiked with a dropperful of bitters, or stumbled across a bitter in baking or marinade, you haven’t been reading the Town Crier’s Food & Wine section, where “Simply Cooking” columnist Rita Held expounds on the variety of ways to incorporate the herbal jolt into everyday dishes.
The biodiversity, plant science and phytochemical analysis in “Botany at the Bar” provides an ethnobotanical tour of human concoctions across time that goes far beyond recipes, charting out how bitter compounds such as terpinolene and anethole combine to give us the experience of flavor.
If you follow the instructions for a beginner’s bitter such as Grapefruit Peel or Celery, you end up with a blend that can be used in a cocktail, soda or even on food. The “Master Class” section of the book includes extended, illustrated explanations of how to extract flavor and combine a dozen or more elements to create a nuanced tincture worth talking about.
Most commercial bitters producers keep their ingredients a secret, but a small number of plants such as gentian, angelica, licorice, cassia and cinchona “tend to get shuffled in, no matter which you’re looking at,” DuVal said. She used 204 different species of plants in the book’s recipes, and breaks down the intention of ingredients based on whether they’re flavoring agents or functional – promoting digestion, salivation or calming the stomach. The functional ingredients are often masked by sweet or aromatic flavoring agents such as anise, nutmeg or citrus. Potable bitters – sweetened liquors like Jagermeister, Campari or Aperol – are measured in ounces, not drops, and can be tolerated plain though they are often still used as mixers.
The most concentrated bitters themselves aren’t intended to be imbibed alone – “Nobody is going to take a round of Angostura – it’s going to taste like an ashtray,” DuVal said.
A treasure hunt
When it comes to finding the rarer ingredients, DuVal said a reader must gauge interest in a “treasure hunt” that goes beyond the grocery store to specialty shops, online stores and regional markets around the area.
“A lot of the fun is going to marketplaces to browse what fresh herbs are there,” she said. “Middle Eastern markets, African marketplaces, Chinatown and Asian grocers – a lot of the fun in this is exploring different marketplaces, getting people to shop outside of their comfort zones as well. We also have some ingredients that can be safely foraged.”
DuVal noted that “in the Bay Area, you can find rosehips, strawberry madrone and bay laurel. In Florida, you can find avocado. Epazote grows like a weed in New York. Artichoke, lavender and fennel might be yard plants,”
In addition to teaching responsible foraging – how to be mindful of appropriate harvesting and vulnerable plants – the book breaks down how to optimize extraction through experimentation.
Gauging the ratio of plant matter to alcohol, and how long to combine them, requires a taste: Is the mouthfeel astringent? Do you need to cut back the tannins by using less plant material, or infusing for a shorter period? Do you want to try pulverizing the plant in a blender, or leaving it whole? Do you want to dry a fresh leaf, to reduce a grassy flavor? That only represents the beginning – then the combination of plant elements can be simple or complex but ultimately depends on the palate of the alchemist. If you’re tasting with the Shoots & Roots team, it won’t be tame. And it doesn’t have to be alcoholic – bitters in soda water has been a traditional tonic for centuries, and added fruit juice can craft a mocktail.
Read on for Shoots & Roots’ Raisin in the Sun classic-style bitters recipe, which pays homage to the company’s birthplace in Harlem. You can buy the ingredients at shootsandrootsbitters.com/shop/raisin-in-the-sun or find them yourself via a shopping treasure hunt. The sour, sweet, bitter and floral recipe uses raisins, sloe fruit, celery seed, citrus peels, juniper berries, fennel, star anise, gentian root, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Use it in cocktails, mixed with soda water, or dashed into tea or mixed with hot water as a tisane.
For more information on Shoots & Roots, visit shootsandrootsbitters.com.
For more information on Hidden Villa’s event, visit hiddenvilla.org/food-worth-celebrating.
Raisin in the Sun
This homemade variation on Pechaud’s bitters, perfect in a Sazerac, uses the standard bitters-making process and yields 500 milliliters. Weigh your botanical material using a kitchen scale.
60 grams raisins, cut in half
20 grams dried pomelo peel
10 grams bitter organic peel
10 grams lime peel
20 grams celery seeds
10 grams fennel seeds
1 whole star anise
10 grams gentian root
8 grams allspice fruit
20 grams dried sloe fruit
7 grams dried juniper berries
5 grams ground nutmeg
5 grams ground cinnamon
375 milliliters 75% ABV neutral grain alcohol
Step 1: Cleaning and Drying
If using fresh plant material, first clean it by rinsing in water and then dry it at room temperature in a well-aerated space in the shade, either indoors or outdoors. If using dried plant material that you purchased, spread it out on your work space and check for impurities.
Step 2: Grinding
Reduce the botanicals into a fine powder using mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Some botanicals are difficult to grind up, in which case larger pieces will have to suffice.
Step 3: Mix with the solvent
Put the botanicals into a glass jar, then pour in the alcohol. The jar should be filled to the neck to minimize the surface being in contact with oxygen, but at the same time the botanical should avoid direct contact with the lid.
Step 4: Get Shaking and Infuse
Shake the jar. You will probably notice a change in the color of the solvent after you have infused your dried botanical material. You can enhance the infusion by storing the jars upright in a cool, dark place (light can degrade the phytochemicals). Shake and rotate the jars each day.
Step 5: Filter
Pour the mixture into a French press and filter, or squeeze through a nut milk bag. You may need to repeat this step several times to achieve desired clarity. The resulting liquid is the concentrated alcohol extract; set it aside while you use the solids in step 6.
Step 6: Create water extract
Add solids to a large stock pot and cover with about 400 milliliters water. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Be careful because splashed ethanol can catch fire. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain, then discard solids.
Step 7: Dilute
Mix 1 cup (240 milliliters) water extract with 1 1/4 cups (295 milliliters) of the alcohol extract. The diluted extract can become cloudy – filter again using a paper coffee filter as desired.
Step 8: Bottle and store
Pour the final extract into clean glass bottles. We prefer to use lids with glass droppers. Bitters are best stored in a cool, dry place, out of direct light and heat. Alcoholic bitters with a high ABV can be stored for a year or longer if kept properly sealed.