Last week it was Cocktail Week here in San Francisco and I was lucky enough to attend a bunch of the events. The highlight was Thursday's bar school — a day of education. Since I'm an avid home mixologist, I checked out the House-Made Ingredients How-To taught by Jeff Hollinger, general manager at Absinthe, and Neyah White, bartender extraordinaire at Nopa.
In the drinks industry, both Jeff and Neyah are pioneers when it comes to creating bitters, cordials, tinctures, syrups, etc. The duo has made it its mission to bring back the craft of cocktail making one bottle of bitters at a time. To check out their tips for making bar ingredients at home and see a gallery of images from the class,
The class started with a quick rundown of basic bartender terminology. A simple syrup is a mixture of water and sugar that is the foundation of an endless variety of syrups. A cordial and liqueur are spirits that have been infused with a flavoring agent (a fruit, herb, or spice) and are then sweetened. A tincture is a super-concentrated flavoring agent that is made from one specific ingredient. Bitters are like tinctures, but are made from a variety of ingredients.
- Don't rely on recipes. Instead White recommends lots of creative experimentation.
- Never throw anything away. Hollinger uses everything that comes out of the kitchen — including pickle juice leftover from one of Jamie Lauren's dishes — to make drink flavorings. White reserved the tops and bottoms of a season's worth of oranges in a large jar. After months of macerating in a high-proof alcohol, he had a complex and flavorful orange bitters.
- Use in-season fruit to make syrups and shrubs (a mixture of fruit, sugar, and vinegar).
- When making bitters and other highly concentrated flavoring agents, don't use the most expensive alcohol. Select an affordable pot-stilled alcohol.
- It doesn't matter which type of alcohol you use. Rum, vodka, and everclear are all good options.
- When working with citrus peel, be sure not to use the white pith. It will make the liquor or cordial bitter.
- Be patient. The longer a mixture sits, the more flavorful it will become. Hollinger and White leave bottled flavorings in dark, cool cabinets for up to a year.
- Strain and strain again. Once the liquid has reached the desired concentration, strain several times in cheesecloth. The final mixer should be clear and clean.
- Make small batches. You can experiment with more ingredients that way.
Now I'm excited to get started on making my own bitters and cordials! Have you ever made your own bar mixers? What kind? How did they turn out?