Growing by the Bay

Category: drinks

Saint George's Distillery, Alameda.

lemon water

Lemon water for a hot day.

Neap Tide cocktail detail showing color.

Neap Tide (cocktail)

The Neap Tide, a refreshing cocktail.

The Neap Tide, a refreshing cocktail.

Today’s fluid delight is something I’m calling a Neap Tide. Neap tides are when the difference between high and low is the least. Steady as she goes. (And this is similar to something Laird’s calls a Tidal Wave.)*

1.5 oz. Laird’s Applejack
0.5 oz. Campari or Bruto Americano
4.0 oz. Orange juice

Stir with ice and strain. You can add an orange garnish. The result is a refreshing drink, with a flavor the evokes grapefruit, that it would probably be all too easy to overdo.

I’m temporarily out of Bruto Americano, so I used Campari, but the Bruto would, I’m sure, be great. As long as you like that kind of thing (as I do) — if bitter isn’t your taste, you could try substituting Apertol, which is sweeter and more citrusy. Hey, they love it in the Veneto and the Alto Adige. If, on the other hand, the OJ is too sweet for your palate, rebalance it with the Campari, or add something like Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters.

A Tidal Wave is a combination of 1.5 oz. Applejack, 4 oz. OJ, and a splash of cranberry juice.

Old Tom's Aromatic Bitters, detail of label.

Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters

Old Tom's Aromatic Bitters.

Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters.

“All bitters are aromatic,” according to Mark Bitterman in his Field Guide to Bitters and Amari, “but the ones that are called aromatic are so jam-packed with aromas, bitterness, and a lick of sweetness that it is impossible to parse out exactly what we are perceiving.”

Here we are perceiving Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters. These turned out exceptionally well, and can serve as a substitute for Angostura Bitters anywhere those would be used.

Star anise.

Star anise.

The ingredients in Angostura Bitters, as with most old-timey botanical beverage products, are a closely guarded secret. In preparing Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters, I first looked at many websites and publications that speculated on the constituents of Angostura Bitters and other aromatic bitters. Then I looked at several recipes for aromatic bitters, making certain that the phrase was being used in the strict sense, since some people, such as Will Budiaman in Handcrafted Bittersapply it to all bitters. even those constructed of only a few ingredients. I made a list of all ingredients and noted how many recipes they were used in. This gave me a kind of consensus snapshot of the main flavors.

I grind the ingredients (here cardamom pods) with a mortar and pestle.

I grind the ingredients (here cardamom pods) with a mortar and pestle.

I ended up using twenty ingredients:

  • allspice
  • angelica root
  • cacao
  • cardamom
  • cinchona
  • cinnamon
  • cloves
  • gentian
  • ginger
  • hops
  • lemon
  • lime
  • maraschino
  • nutmeg
  • peppercorn
  • quassia
  • Seville ­orange
  • star anise
  • vanilla
  • wormwood
Infusing ginger. This shows the proportions of solid material to grain alcohol (about 1:2). But all of the material should be submersed.

Infusing ginger. This shows the best proportions of solid material to grain alcohol (about 1:2). But all of the material should be submersed. (Hops, middle in the background, swell up, so the proportion of solid to liquid there is deceptive.)

Of these, angelica root, cinchona, gentian, hops, quassia, and wormwood are all bittering agents, while the others are flavors. That’s a lot of different bitters, and this is different from other recipes, but I think it works, once the proportions are balanced out. (Experiment.) Gentian was the primary bitter ingredient. I tinctured each ingredient separately in grain alcohol (most often infusing for about five days) and strained through a gold filter into jam jars.

Tinctures. At right are infusions in process, at left completed, strained tinctures.

Tinctures. At right are infusions in process, at left completed tinctures strained into jam jars.

I wanted some sour cherry flavor in the mix, as well as some sweetness. To provide these qualities I added Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur (needless to say, this is nothing like the nasty bright red cherries; it is clear in color and made not just from sour cherry fruits but from the pits and, I think, twigs as well).

I’m not selling my bitters so I don’t have to measure the volume of alcohol precisely. I follow the guideline of adding 20 percent lower-ABV spirits to the tinctures (the grain alcohol is 151 proof). If the ABV is too high, the alcohol burn will mask out the flavors. In addition to the maraschino, I added brandy as a second spirit. The resulting ABV is probably around 50 percent, which is my target.

Apart from the spirits, the ingredients are natural and mostly organic. For example, the lemons, oranges, and limes are all from my own garden. This is important, because commercial citrus may be sprayed with insecticides and coated with wax.

Lemons, February 2017. This tree provides all the lemons we need, year round.

Lemons, February 2017. This tree provides all the lemons we need, year round.

These bitters have a lovely reddish amber color, and they are GOOD. I am having some now in a Manhattan: 2 oz. bourbon, 1 oz. sweet vermouth, and at least a couple of dashes of Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters. Yep!

detail of old San Bernabé vermouth label

How to Make Vermouth, Part 1: Curated Resources

Martini & Rossi vermouth ad.

Martini & Rossi vermouth ad.

The first question about making vermouth, I suppose, is why?* It’s a two-part question, really. Why vermouth? And why homemade?

Vermouth is a fortified wine flavored with fruits and botanicals (herbs and spices). For general online information on vermouth, Vermouth 101 can’t be beat. A good print resource (particularly for the history of vermouth) is Adam Ford’s Vermouth: The revival of the Spirit that Created America’s Cocktail Culture (2015).

The two main types are sweet and dry, the first historically associated with Italy, the second with France. Vermouth is an essential element in cocktails, from the Martini to the Manhattan to the Negroni to countless others. It was once more popular as something to be drunk neat than seems to be the case today. A palatable vermouth makes possible lowering the alcoholic content of your drinks and cocktails. This can be a good thing.

You can easily find cheap commercial vermouths. Which is actually part of the problem. Vermouth goes bad fairly quickly, and if you start with stale, indifferent ingredients … well, it’s no wonder the drink has been slow to really engage an American audience. Top-quality vermouths, like most cocktail ingredients, will set you back a bit. Part of the fun of vermouth is making it with locally sourced botanicals. Stuff from the garden is the best.

The word vermouth comes from the French vermout, from the German Wermut, “wormwood.” By European law, all vermouth must contain wormwood. This herb, Artemesia absinthium, is one of the bitterest of all bittering agents. Famously, it is a key ingredient in absinthe. Making vermouth is similar to making cocktail bitters, in that it combines bittering and flavoring agents. But whereas cocktail bitters are usually around 60-68% ABV, vermouth is usually between 16 and 18% ABV (wine is usually around 11-14). It is a lightly alcoholic drink in which the main ingredient is wine.

In this post I will summarize some of the wisdom of the internet on making vermouth. In a future post I will discuss my own efforts. Techniques of making  DIY vermouth vary considerably, not just in the details of ingredients but even in fundamental approaches. You can do your own search and come up with a lot of results, but I’ve looked at quite a few of them and selected the ones I have found most helpful.  So here’s a curated and annotated guide to resources. Let’s begin with a little background about commercial production.


As I mentioned above, check out Vermouth 101., the website of Camper English, is generally a good source of information on alcoholic drinks. One page there offers a pictorial guide to some of the botanicals used in Italian vermouth.

English also visited a French vermouth producer, Noilly Prat. It’s interesting that this producer fortifies its wine with a lemon-raspberry eau de vie. He also discusses the differences among Noilly Prat’s various vermouths, and reveals some of the botanicals they use.

Finally, English gives some of the history and regulation of vermouth, based on a presentation by Giuseppe Gallo.

The Best Guides

Now for some approaches to making your own. A good place to start is with Jack Bevan, winner of the 2014 Young British Foodie Award in the alcohol category. His approach involves infusing botanicals much as one would do for bitters. He uses twenty botanicals in his vermouth, in the following proportions (weight is for the infused essences, not the raw materials): 15g angelica seed, 15g bay, 10g black peppercorn, 1g cardamom, 8.3g cinnamon, 0.5g clove, 15g coriander seed, 2g gentian root, 15g juniper berry, 5g marjoram, 5g nutmeg, 14.6g orange peel, 6g orris root powder, 4g quassia bark, 5g rosemary, 15g sage, 5g star anise, 5g vanilla pods, 4g wormwood, and 2g yarrow. He combines the infusions (he calls them teas) with wine and a caramel made by heating sugar in a fry pan. Bevan’s approach is a little different from many because the fortification of the wine comes entirely from the vodka used to make the herbal infusions. He mixes his materials by weight using kitchen scales so he can determine ABV by arithmetic. Assuming the wine is 12% ABV and the vodka 40% ABV (this is not specified), then 150ml infusions * .4 = 60 and 500ml wine * .12 = 60. and 120/650 = 18.5ABV.

(The Guardian’s guide to making “the perfect vermouth” is virtually identical to Bevan’s.)

Let’s next visit Amy Stewart, the Drunken Botanist (she also has a book of the same name). Rather than a specific recipe, she offers some general advice. For example, for fortifying the wine she recommends “brandy, grape eau-de-vie, cognac, grappa, even port or sherry.” She also adds fruit, such as “berries, peaches, apples, citrus,” which she infuses in brandy or another high-proof spirit for just two days. (Bevan infuses for two weeks.) She boils the fruit infusions in wine. Other ingredient suggestions include “gentian root, angelica root, cardamom pods, star anise, vanilla bean … oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, coriander, and wormwood. She adds caramel for sweet vermouth only, none for dry.

Masa Urushido and Nacho Jimenez, the head bartenders at Manhattan’s Saxon + Parole star in an illustrated vermouth-making guide from Munchies. They use a Riesling wine and infuse the bittering and flavoring botanicals directly in the wine for two weeks. Then they add an (unspecified) eau de vie and finally flavor with sugar and sea salt. This is the only recipe that adds salt. It seems a plausible recipe.

Meghan Boledovich, “staff forager” for Print, a restaurant on 11th avenue in Manhattan, talks about making vermouth based on a recipe from Sebastian Zutant of Proof restaurant in Washington, D.C. Like Stewart, she boils the botanicals in wine. She fortifies with sherry. Like most vermouth makers, she recommends Pinot Grigio or a similar wine, along with some other possibilities, for the wine base. She does not seem to add caramel. Her ingredients include wormwood, gentian root, chamomile, juniper berries, cinnamon, sage, cardamom, coriander, and orange and lemon rind. This is a nice, simple recipe.

Kelly Magyarics at Wine Enthusiast magazine also references the technique of Sebastian Zutant. He boils the botanicals in wine and then steeps the mixture overnight, then fortifies it with sherry. He uses Palo Cortado or Fino sherry for dry vermouth and sweet or cream sherry for sweet vermouth. He does not use caramel. This is a quick and simple method.

Flynn McLennan, Owner/Bartender at Kagura in Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia, combines the botanicals with the wine and vodka all at once and infuses the mixture for a month. His botanicals list is quite long.

J. J. Proville at offers a survey of different approaches to making vermouth. Like Stewart he describes a range of options rather than a particular recipe.

Of Lesser Interest

These links might be of interest, but I would start with the ones above.

Chris Tunstall at adds red wine to his vermouth. This is unusual. He also provides a video, but it’s not a demonstration, it’s just him talking.

Fiveandspice at Food52 offers a few basic tips along the lines of “don’t start with a wine you really don’t like.”

Serious Eats uses the boiling and caramel method.

This nicely illustrated guide by home vermouth makers  uses the boiling method. But the authors use a cheap chardonnay wine (Two-Buck Chuck), which does not seem a good idea to me.

Food and Wine infuses fruits for two days in brandy and adds the result to caramel. They boil the botanicals in rosé wine and and add to Port. Then they mix it all together.


It’s clear that there is a range of approaches to making vermouth. Of course the recipes differ in ingredients, but they also vary quite widely in how to infuse flavors, what to infuse them in, how to fortify the wine, whether to add caramelized sugar, and other issues. Which approach you choose is probably largely just a matter of personal preference (I’m not aware of any taste test comparing different approaches). But all of them are easily doable.

I’m a little skeptical of infusing with wine, because the low proof would be less effective in extracting the essential oils from the botanicals than higher proof spirits. Still, some may prefer subtle flavoring. For sweet vermouth, if using a sweet sherry to fortify the wine, as Sebastian Zutant does, gives good results, then this seems less fuss and bother than making caramel. I will try that. And as I already have quite a few infused tinctures, my approach will resemble that of  Jack Bevan. Stay tuned for more.

Let me know of good resources I have missed so that I can add them.


* Professor Irwin Corey, the world’s foremost authority, on why he wears tennis shoes: “Well, that’s a two-part question,” he began. “First you ask why. Well, why has been plaguing man since time immemorial. Statesman, philosophers, educators, teachers, scientists have been asking the ultimate why. And in these few moments allocated me, it would be ludicrous on my part—for the sake of brevity—to delve into the ultimate why. Do I wear sneakers? Yes.” Return to top of page.

Ginger Beer Taste-Off: Bug v. Yeast

Ginger beer in flip-top bottle.

Ginger beer in flip-top bottle.

I love ginger beer — “vigorous reviving stuff with an edge to it,” in the judgment of Kingsley Amis. But the commercial kinds can be expensive. What’s more, home-made ginger beer is tastier. It’s wholesome and easy to make. Let’s make some.

What you need

Pur water purifier.

Something like this Pur water purifier, which lives in the refrigerator, helps to ensure clean water that will not impede fermentation.

  • Ginger (organic, or at least not irradiated)
  • Sugar
  • Water (chlorine removed)
  • A fermentation starter


Halved limes ready for juicing.

Halved limes ready for juicing. (I currently have three lime trees and am thinking of adding a couple more since I use limes often.) I got the squeezer at the neighborhood store; a larger yellow one is good for lemons. I purchased a set of three stainless steel funnels with a strainer from an Australian manufacturer. I use them all the time in making bitters and other things, and am happy with them.

  • Limes (my preference) or lemons
  • Spices (plenty of room for experimentation here)

About the ingredients

Organic ginger.

Organic ginger from CostCo.

  • CostCo sells a characteristically giant package of organic ginger at a good price. You want organic because supermarket ginger might have been irradiated, killing all the bacteria. Ginger beer is a living thing (and that’s good for your gut). Hard to get good fermentation if all life has been destroyed.
  • I have generally just used granulated white cane sugar, but I think you could use pretty much any kind of sugar, depending on your flavor and ingredient preferences, and the state of your pantry. (I will probably try turbinado sugar next time.)
  • Chlorinated water is another thing that is harmful to bacteria. If you use tap water you can either let it sit for a while or boil it. Filtered water is probably best. Here in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area we have pretty good water (except sometimes during extreme drought), but I still find the filtered water tastes better.

The starters

Champagne yeast.

Champagne yeast is a standardized starter. The alternative is wild fermentation. In this post I compare the two.

Ginger beer is essentially fermented ginger syrup. Fermentation can be divided into two types: wild fermentation and cultured fermentation. The former depends on bacteria present in the ingredients and the environment. Cultured fermentation seeks to get better control over the process through the application of standardized yeasts. (My biochemist dad developed and sold frozen coagulated starter cultures for use in making cheese and other products.)

To make ginger beer you have to add a starter to the watery ginger syrup in order to kickstart the fermentation process. You could use things like water kefir, kombucha, or whey as wild cultures, but I have always relied on a little guy who goes by the endearing name of “ginger bug.” It just seems the easiest and most natural way of going about it. I’ve also made ginger beer with a standardized culture, namely champagne yeast. What are the differences, and which is better? As a test, I made one gallon of each. I will describe the process and give my evaluation.

The ginger bug

Ginger bug.

Ginger bug.

A ginger bug is a simple and a complex thing. It begins as a more concentrated mixture of ginger, sugar, and water than will be used in the ginger beer itself. Grate or slice some ginger into a canning jar. Some remove the skin, but I leave it: what’s the point of removing it? Add sugar and stir. I use about two or three tablespoons each of ginger and sugar in one and a half or two cups of water. Exact quantities are not critical. Bacteria adore this stuff: leave it out on the counter, feed it daily with a bit more ginger and sugar, and in a few days it will be colonized and start to bubble. The exact amount of time depends on the season and local conditions. It could be ready in two or three days, or it could take a week.

The beneficial bacteria go to town on the ginger and sugar mixture so enthusiastically that you don’t have to worry about any bad little buggers elbowing in, as they will quickly get crowded out. A permeable cover lets the beneficial bacteria into the jar but keep insects out (maggots would be a serious turn-off, I imagine, notwithstanding Sandor Katz, who says they can just be scooped out). I put a coffee filter over the jar, held with a rubber band. Sometimes I have poked a tiny hole or two in the filter with a push pin, but this is kind of silly and not necessary. You could also use a cheesecloth cover. In fact, the bacteria will probably find their way in almost no matter what cover you use.

The bacteria break down the sugar into lactic acid and carbon dioxide. When we get to the ginger beer stage the CO2 will give carbonation, that welcome fizz. The process will ultimately reduce the sweetness from the sugar, converting it to (a small amount of) alcohol.

The ginger bug can, I understand, also be used as a base for home-made root beers and sodas. I haven’t tried this.

Feeding the bug

To keep the bug alive for your next batch of ginger beer you have to feed it. (Of course, you could just whip up a new batch, but that would involve waiting.) You don’t want to starve the bacteria, so you add maybe one or two tablespoons of ginger and the same amount of sugar every day. I try to stir the bug and feed it once or twice a day. After a week or so, when it is bubbling nicely, starts to smell fermented, has ginger floating on the top, and begins to show a white residue on the bottom of the jar, you’re ready to brew.

If you want to hold your bug a while before brewing and reduce the fuss, you can stick it in the refrigerator. This obviates the need for daily feeding, though you should probably add a teaspoon of ginger and a teaspoon of sugar about once a week. In this way you can keep the book in the refrigerator indefinitely

Preparing the brew

Chopped ginger. This will get more finely ground in a bit.

Chopped ginger. This will get more finely ground in a bit.

To prepare the ginger concoction, I follow the procedure described in Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, in which half of the liquid is reserved and added later to speed cooling. This just saves time. I like my ginger beer spicy, and I tend to use about a foot of ginger root per two gallons of water. Some people might want to start with something like a third that amount and work up to taste.

So if I’m making two gallons of ginger beer I will add the ginger to one gallon of water, reserving the other gallon. My technique at this point is to chop the ginger and then blend the brew with an immersion blender. (Grating a lot of ginger is a real pain.) I have a Breville immersion blender that I love. It requires much less clean-up than standard blenders or mixers. You just stick this thing in a bowl, push a button, and go.

Immersion blending the ginger brew.

Immersion blending the ginger brew.

Bring the water to a boil, then gently simmer for 15–20 minutes. (This length of time works; I haven’t tested others.) Add sugar and stir until dissolved. I use about a cup and a half per gallon of finished ginger beer, but some people use twice that amount. Now add the other gallon of water to cool the brew. After adding the cool water the result will probably still be too warm for your bug (especially if you don’t transfer to a new vessel), so cover and wait until it’s about body temperature. (I use the baby milk formula method of dropping a little on the back of my hand to judge whether it has cooled enough.)

Ginger brew after application of immersion blender.

Ginger brew after application of immersion blender.

Adding the Starter

Carboys of ginger brew started with champagne yeast and with ginger bug.

Carboys of ginger brew started with champagne yeast and with ginger bug.

Okay, our brew has cooled to body temperature, so now it’s time to strain the mixture and add the starter. I strained through a sieve into another large pot, then strained again in filling the two one-gallon carboys. I used to always use carboys with airlocks to prevent glass explosions from the pressure of fermentation. They are handy to have, and they work. But increasingly I just let the brew ferment in the same vessel it was mixed in, covered with a kitchen towel. Once the brew is bubbling vigorously (from a few hours to a few days, depending mainly on the potency of the starter), it can be transferred directly to bottles.

Airlocks allow carbonation to escape while preventing undesirables from entering. Fill to line with water.

Airlocks allow carbonation to escape while preventing undesirables from entering. Fill to line with water.

For my starter experiment, I brewed one gallon using champagne yeast and another gallon with the ginger bug. What I found is that the champagne yeast fermented the brew more quickly, and it produced more sediment (I’m not sure to what extent this might be a dosage issue).

Tasters agreed unanimously that the ginger bug produced a drink with a fuller and more pleasing taste.

The bug will not tolerate too much alcohol, and it caps off at about 4 percent ABV (I think), while champagne yeast can survive up to more than twice that level of alcohol. In other words, the yeast version is potentially much more alcoholic. As a test, I let some of the yeasted ginger beer go for a while, and it became pretty alcoholic and remarkably dry, as the yeast efficiently reduced the sugar. The result is a sort of ginger country wine that is quite sharp and not to my taste.

You probably won’t get anywhere near the bug’s ABV cap, and the result will most like be only minimally alcoholic. (Commercial ginger beers are said to be around just 0.5 percent ABV, so they are not required to list alcohol as an ingredient.) If you want to minimize the alcohol content, bottle sooner; let it go longer for a higher ABV.


Once the brew is ready — this is determined by tasting — transfer it to bottles. Continued fermentation in the bottle produces the carbonation. It’s very unlikely that your starter has capped out, but in that case carbonation could be started back up through the addition of a pinch of sugar.

Sandor Ellix Katz writes in The Art of Fermentation, “active ferments sealed in bottles when they still have significant sugar to fuel continued fermentation can explode like bombs, with disfiguring and live-threatening results.” Consider yourself warned. Even if you were not in the line of fire when such an explosion happened, at the very least you would have a hell of a mess of broken glass and ginger beer to clean up, so take pains to avoid this. (Hence carboys.)

At this stage you have a couple of choices. Well, three, if you include using bottles that run the risk of exploding, but I think we can agree that it is sensible to eliminate that unnecessary risk.

  • Funnel into plastic bottles. Worst that can happen is you forget about them and pop a cap. Still, glass probably gives better flavor.
  • Funnel into flip-top (Grolsch style) bottles or other bottles intended to hold fermented beverages (such as prosecco bottles, properly capped). I like these amber 16-ounce Grolsch-style bottles. They come with replacement gaskets.

In funneling I have variously used cheesecloth, a gold coffee filter, and paper coffee filters, in combination with the funnel strainer. The first two are the best choices, as sensitive tasters are said to be able to detect the effect of the paper filters.

Even with the Grolsch bottles, it’s a good idea to do at least one plastic bottle. The point at which the plastic stops giving when squeezed is probably where you want the carbonation (adjust to preference).

Once fermentation is where you like it, refrigerate. The fermentation will be arrested. Well, slowed considerably: best to pop the top occasionally if you leave it in the fridge for a long time.

Ginger beer is best drunk young. Straight up is a fine way to go. You can also use it in cocktails — with citrus added these were historically called bucks or mules — such as the Dark and Stormy (add rum to taste) and the Moscow Mule (a vodka buck). You might also try the drink that Kingsley Amis, that accomplished tippler, rhapsodized: ginger beer, gin, and lots of ice: he considered this an improvement to the gin and tonic. “I would name this one of the great long [tall] drinks of our time,” Amis wrote in Everyday Drinking, “almost worth playing a couple of hours’ cricket before imbibing.”

Almost. In any case, imbibe.

Update. This post includes affiliate links. When I wrote it I linked to Amazon. Today I might search for a different vendor (because Amazon).

Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters

Old Tom's Maximon Mole Bitters

Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters.

These turned out great. Most of the mole bitters recipes I could find (there aren’t a lot) were, I felt, too simple. That goes against the spirit of what mole is, which is a complex mix of many flavors. For my mole bitters I infused cacao nibs, vanilla bean, cinnamon, ancho chile, coriander, cloves, and allspice. I was pleased that the chile calibrated exactly right: not too hot, but not too timid either.

Some of my mole bitters ingredients

Some of my mole bitters ingredients.

I’m working on a second batch now. This time I think I will try gentian rather than wormwood as the bittering agent. Or come to think of it, reduce the wormwood and combine it with gentian. I will have to ponder the portions. Fortunately, I enjoy bitter flavors—wormwood is said to be the second most bitter drink, though I don’t know how scientific that appraisal is. It’s bitter, for sure.

In making bitters I cut the grain alcohol with another spirit to reduce the proof and round out the flavor. The result should be about 50 percent ABV. (Some people do this with a watery mash cooked up from the infused solids. This is hard to fathom. I believe Mark Bitterman, who says that this water extract “tastes bland at best.”) This time I used a light rum, which I thought would be the most versatile, but I might experiment with other spirits. I’m tempted to try sake.

Old Tom's Maximon Mole Bitters woozy bottle label

Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters woozy bottle label.

I’ve started using woozy bottles rather than two-ounce dropper bottles (though those are great for airline carry-on). So for these larger bottles I used Avery 5164 labels.

The macaw image was taken in Antigua, Guatemala. Maximon is a Maya folk hero/deity (he’s pretty cool). Read about Maximon here.

I endorse this recipe!

2 oz tequila (I have silver, but reposado might be better)
Some maraschino liqueur (maybe a teaspoon)
One or two dashes of Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters
One or two dashes of Tom’s Citrus Bitters
Sweeten to taste with agave nectar
Shake with ice and strain.
If you’re feeling fancy, garnish with a twist of lime

BTW, I don’t sell Old Tom’s Bitters (nor does anyone else). To execute the recipe you will have to make your own.


fame un spritz video capture detail

Fame un spritz!

It’s summertime, which means it’s time for a refreshing spritz, the signature drink of northern Italy. And while we’re at it, let’s repost this fun video, Fame un spritz (Make me a spritz) by Sir Oliver Skardy & Fahrenheit 451, which I originally posted over at back in 2010.

At that time, also at rightreading, in a post titled “it’s a small world apertol,” I also posted some early thoughts about spritzes, along with with the simple basic recipe.

I’m reminded of this by an article by Robert Siminson in today’s New York Times food section. In the print edition it’s called “The Spritz: It’s All Built on Bubbles.” The online version is called “Bitter and Bubbly, the Spritz Evolves.”

So fame un spritz!


Bitters and health

bitters on desk

Bitters and tinctures on my desk

While we’re on the subject of bitters, it’s worth taking note of their health benefits, which include moderating blood sugar, improving digestion, and I think immortality–though I understand not all alternative health sites are 100 percent reliable, so I’m not certain about that last one.

Here are three sites on the topic that seem pretty good:

Andrew Weil: Why Bitter Is Better
“America is still probably the most sugar-philic and bitter-phobic culture the world has ever known…. But there is an appealing logic to consuming bitters for health….”

The Weston A Price Foundation: Bitters: the Revival of a Forgotten Flavor
“Many of the diseases riddling our modern culture—from indigestion and gastric reflux to metabolic disorders ranging from elevated cholesterol to type 2 diabetes—seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets….”

Jim McDonald: Blessed Bitters
“I am a firm believer in Bitter Deficiency Syndrome; a notion that posits that much of the health woes faced by modern folk has at its root a lack of bitter flavor in the diet; and that many of the digestive problems for which we see bitters as a “remedy” are actually symptoms of deficiency of this flavor….”

Delicious and good for you, with ingredients straight from the garden — how can you go wrong?

herbal bitters detail

Herbal Bitters Recipes

Tom's Herbal Bitters

A selection of Tom’s Herbal Bitters

For my next two batches of bitters I followed a base herbal bitters recipe from Mark Bitterman. He uses three bittering agents in his herbal bitters: I tsp gentian, 2 tsp quassia chips, 1 tbs hops, together with 2 tbs double strength simple syrup. He combines Everclear grain alcohol and botanical gin in the ratio of 4:1. No doubt it’s best to use the highest-quality herbal gin, but that stuff is pretty expensive, so I just used Rangpur Tanqueray, which seemed to work. To this base he simply combines fruit pieces and fresh herbs in fairly hefty quantities. I used basil and dried cherries in one and cilantro and lime in the other. These and other recipes can be found in his Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari: 500 Bitters 40 Amari 123 Recipes for Cocktails Food & Homemade Bitters (Andres McMeel, 2015).

I stopped infusing after 5 days. After that point the tannins start to dominate, and I didn’t want to lose the fresh herb and fruit flavors. I put the canning jars full of ingredients in a dark place and shook them several times a day. I strained the mixture through a gold coffee filter, and then through a funnel with a double layer of cheesecloth into two-ounce amber bottles with droppers. I chose the two-ounce bottles because I want to be able to carry some with me on airlines to give away. (I washed the bottles first with soap and water and then dried them as best I was able.)

Canning jars in which herbs and fruit chunks are infusing. (Dates of preparation are are on the lids, not shown.)

Canning jars in which herbs and fruit chunks are infusing. (Dates of preparation are are on the lids, not shown.)

Bitterman says that herbal bitters are especially good in cooking. A few drops of cherry bitters might be interesting with maple syrup buttermilk pancakes, I imagine. But I prefer them for savory cocktails using spirits like tequila, whisky, or gin. The cilantro lime bitters should work well with Mexican menus. The Bollard has some suggestions for tequila cocktails, and you can get some ideas from Yummly too. And there’s a Cherry Basil Collins recipe at Cocktail Puppy. Generally you have to be a little creative, since older recipes presume Angostura are the only bitters you can find (unless you’re in New Orleans and can get Peychaud’s). Now there are hundreds of commercials bitters as well as more people like me making their own.

Some ingredients for herbal bitters

Some ingredients for herbal bitters

Happily, my limes seem to have survived our stretch of frosts. I don’t grow cherries, and I used dried cherries from the supermarket. I bought the dried herbs I didn’t grow myself from Lhasa Karnak in Berkeley — highly recommended.

I make my labels with 2 x 4 in. Avery labels, using InDesign template 5163. I size the background image first in Photoshop. The font is Garamond Premier Pro, the same I used in 1616: The World in Motion; River of Ink: Literature, History, Art; and many other books.

The Bitter Gardener

citrus bitters

Bitters are handy in cocktails and cooking — or even to just flavor water for drinking. This is my first batch of bitters, and the result is satisfying.

Making your own bitters means you have control over the ingredients. Most of mine come from the garden and are organic. More on that in another post.

You have solvents, bittering agents, and flavoring agents. You can make separate tinctures and then combine, or just throw everything in a single canning jar and hope for the best (which was my approach for this batch of citrus bitters). Making separate tinctures gives better control (different ingredients infuse at different rates), although it might be that the flavors combine better when infused together.

My main solvents were Everclear grain alcohol and  unfiltered semi-sweet sake (in a ration of about 2:1). I think next time I will try substituting mirin for the sake to get a result that is less cloudy.

My bittering agent was wormwood (the extremely bitter ingredient in absinthe). My flavors were lemon, bitter orange, lime, tangerine, cardamom, allspice, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, and anise seed.

You shake the jar every day for a week or so (most sites advise two weeks or more, but I feel Mark Bitterman — more on him in a moment — is right when he says a shorter time gives fresher, less tannic flavor. Then you strain, first through a gold coffee filter and then through cheesecloth, bottle, and label. Some people simmer the macerated ingredients and use the resulting water to cut the alchohol, but I see no advantage in that compared to cutting with a solvent with a lower ABV (in this case the sake).

I consulted many websites, but my main guides were Mark Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari and Will Budiaman’s Hardcrafted Bitters. I particularly like Bitterman.


Frisco Pisco

Frisco Pisco (image via Food 52.

Frisco Pisco (image via Food 52.

I once lived for a time in Guapalo, Ecuador, and later traveled around Peru. So I know from pisco. Pisco is a brandy-like drink that Peru claims as its own. Unfortunately for Peru, however, Chile currently produces and exports more pisco than Peru does. (Peruvians scoff at the Chilean product.)

This has led to considerable hard feelings between the nations, but that’s not the story. The story is–and this I didn’t know–that the drink has a strong San Francisco connection. According to this story in the San Francisco Chronicle,

This style of brandy was once the toast of San Francisco, and Pisco Punch, a drink that was created by bartender Duncan Nichol at the Bank Exchange, a bar that used to stand on Montgomery Street, is said to have been the most popular drink in the city in the 1870s. Unfortunately, Nichol took his recipe to the grave.

The Pisco Sour, perhaps the best-known pisco-based drink in America, is said to have been created in 1915 by Victor Morris, a native of Berkeley who owned the Morris Bar in Lima, Peru, and this cocktail, a simple mix of pisco, lime juice, egg white and simple syrup, has made a big comeback in recent years. The secret to a good Pisco Sour is the angostura bitters that are dashed on top of the drink as an aromatic garnish.

Who knew?


Some rights reserved 2022 Tom’s Garden. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons (attribution, noncommercial, no derivs: 3.0) License (US), although some of the work this blog incorporates may be separately licensed. Text and images by Thomas Christensen unless otherwise noted. For print permissions or other inquiries please request via