Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Vanilla Lace Bitters

Happy New Year!

Living out in cocktail-land on Twitter, you get to see all the incredible things people are doing and how there are so many methods and sources for bringing flavor into a cocktail: spirits, liqueurs, juices, zests, herbs, spices, infusions, tinctures, syrups, shrubs, and, of course, bitters. But even with all the spirits/liqueurs/bitters flavors available to buy, there are a few ideas that seem to have slipped through the cracks: a lemon triple sec, Usquebaugh spiced brandy or whiskey, vanilla-dominant bitters, for instance.

Sure, there's the difficult-to-get famed Bob's Vanilla Bitters, Bittercube does a Cherry-Bark Vanilla bitters and if you google "vanilla bitters" you'll see everyone and their mother republishing Dr. Schwartz's Cherry-Vanilla bitters (the latter two are lovely, but they're not exclusively vanilla-focused). And oh, hello there Imbibe magazine sneaking in this Vanilla Bitters recipe very very recently (ack!). For completeness' sake, there's also this less-complex vanilla bitters recipe on Foodista and Bittermens makes a rare experimental Squirrel Nut Pecan Vanilla Bitters. I also hear there's a hush-hush local Philly recipe featured at the Four Seasons' Swann Lounge.

So where does that leave me? Mainly with a bottle of Bittercube and not much else (save for the homemade batch of the below recipe, natch). And I have to say, I appreciate that Imbibe recipe: it's a different flavor profile than I have/would've done, but the complexity is what I would've looked for a few months ago. Still, for where I was a few months ago, I dreamed about something spicy and exotic beyond what you could get with plain vanilla extract, but would emphasize and expand vanilla's flavor. (I also dreamed a bit beyond the scope of this recipe about making a bitters the flavor of barrel-aging - imagine adding that to unaged spirits.. But, for another time, achieving vanilla is enough for now.) So, I picked up a copy of Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons, ordered up a slew of herbal ingredients from Penn Herb Co. and set to work.

Vanilla Lace Bitters
2 vanilla beans, split and quartered
1/2 nutmeg, crushed
3 pods black cardamom, woody hulls discarded, crushed
4 allspice berries, crushed
1/2 tsp milk thistle seed, cracked
1/4 tsp sweet anise seed, crushed
1/4 tsp damiana leaves, dried and cut
1/4 tsp gentian root, dried and cut
tiny pinch quassia chips, dried and cut
1 1/2 cups Everclear 150

3/4 cup water
3/4 tsp vanilla sugar

Combine all but the water, vanilla sugar, and 1 vanilla bean in a mason jar. Set in a dark cool area like a cabinet and let infuse 1 week, shaking twice daily to circulate the infusion. After that first week, add the second vanilla bean and infuse/shake as before. The first week is about setting the underlying flavor profile, including some vanilla in the mix so the addition of more vanilla doesn't taste disjointed in the final bitters. The second vanilla bean is about bringing that flavor to the forefront on top of all the earlier flavors.

After two weeks infusing, strain the liquid first through a sieve then through a coffee filter into a new mason jar and set back into the cabinet to rest - you're done shaking it. Take the strained-off herb and spice components and set them in a small pot with the 3/4 cup water, simmering (not boiling) on the stove for 10 minutes. Once cool, pour all the contents of the pot into a new mason jar and infuse/shake for 1 week as you did the first jar. On the 6th or 7th day of infusion, add the vanilla sugar to the water-infusion jar and shake to dissolve.

After a week's infusion, double-strain the water-infusion as you did with the grain alcohol infusion, then combine the two infusions in a glass jar/bottle big enough to hold the batch (makes about 2 to 2 1/4 cups).

Bitters, not bourbon.
The above technique I've borrowed from B.T. Parsons' Bitters, but here I'd like to add on a component which I think better clarifies the resulting liquid. Instead of simply letting rest at room temperature a few more days for sediment to form and then re-straining through a coffee filter, I would suggest taking your bottle or jar of bitters and sticking it in the fridge for an ensuing week (yes, I know, this goshdarn recipe takes a full month!). While it's resting in the fridge, give it a swirl or two daily. Sediment will naturally form regardless of temperature, but by chilling it, you're letting the particles contract away from each other, allowing the sediment more of a chance of separating. By giving it a swirl or shake, you're letting those free sediment particles circulate to better clump (and they like clumping). After a week, coffee filter strain your bitters one final time. It's a good method: nearly 2 months after that final strain there's barely a dusting of sediment left in the bitters.

The above recipe is my second try at the bitters. Originally I had included dried hyssop and more quassia chips on a base of overproof rum (hey, I figured, the vanilla in the rum would back up the vanilla otherwise - not quite). There was almost a too-sweet taste with an odd vegetal tang that just didn't fit. I also infused spice, herbs, and bittering agents separately to blend to the best ratios, but the overall result didn't quite mesh. Back to the drawing board, I focused the flavor a bit more and switched to neutral-tasting Everclear to let the ingredients better shine through.

The resulting bitters really do bring the "bitter" along with a more complex and subtly spicy vanilla taste than you might get with, say, vanilla extract (which this isn't too far from, I'll admit). The cardamom and nutmeg function as the secondary flavors, almost like legs or a foundation for the vanilla to stand on, meshing seamlessly. The anise and allspice do a little bit of this too, but in more tertiary roles. Milk thistle seed has a slight, well, milky taste which harmonizes. Damiana is a wonderful mix of green vegetal and black pepper notes - this Mexican aphrodisiac puts the exotic "Lace" in the bitters. And a little quassia goes a very long way - best to stick with chocolate and coffee-noted gentian as a bittering agent.

As far as use, it depends on the backbones of the spirits you're using, but generally you'll want to use the bitters sparingly so they don't overtake your cocktail. However, they play so nice with aged spirits. Try a healthy dash of Vanilla Lace Bitters in a bourbon Old Fashioned with cinnamon syrup - all but a touch of the spice and bitter is detectable, leaving the enhanced spirit naked on your tongue and not bogged down by the other ingredients (something I've noticed happens with plain sugar sweetness in Old Fashioneds).

Or even if you're not looking to have a cocktail:

Virgin Old-Fashioned Lace
8 oz milk
1/4 oz Vanilla Lace Bitters
1/4 oz vanilla sugar

Muddle the bitters and sugar in your serving glass to help the sugar dissolve. Add milk, stir lightly, enjoy!

Ever take-out burgers and fries or do them at home, but feel a little less indulgent about completing the classic '50s pop food triumvirate with a milkshake? Have something less heavy, just as delightful and more complex - and frankly better for you, both for your bones and your digestive health. A perfect pairing, really.

Keep an eye out this week. I've been working on a couple more recipes to demonstrate Vanilla Lace Bitters, so stay tuned!