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Marshall Fawley Talks About Everything Bitters

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Marshall Fawley
Marshall Fawley
Photo: Scofflaw's Den

Making drinks at home has recently progressed beyond simple two or three ingredient standards like Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and martinis. Not only are people shaking up drinks with fancy ice cubes and obscure liquors — there's also a strong push for making homemade bitters, liqueurs, and syrups.

Marshall Fawley dove into the world of cocktails when he started the blog Scofflaw's Den with his friend, SeanMike Whipkey, in 2007. In the last five years, the two have reviewed spirits, created cocktails recipes, and written about a whole gamut of cocktail-related topics. Scofflaw's Den recently incorporated as a consulting company with Marshall serving as the CEO of Scofflaw's Den, where in addition to blogging, he consults with bars, and teaches cocktail classes at local bars and restaurants.

As someone who has transitioned from home cocktail enthusiast to aficionado, Marshall discussed with Eater some of the things that go into cooking up your own cocktail components at home.
—Jamie Liu

It seems a lot less labor intensive to just go to the store to buy liqueurs, syrups, infusions, and bitters. Why would you make your own?
Part of making your own liqueurs, syrups and bitters is the fun of it all. You can experiment with flavors and combinations that aren't sold in the store. Plus, it can be a lot more economical to make your own. If you spend $15 on a bottle of bitters at the store, that same $15 could buy enough raw materials for multiple flavors of do it yourself things.
Another thing that I've done is made things like non-alcoholic gin that I use in mocktails for my friends who are teetotalers or my fiancee's pregnant friends.

Your focus is mostly on bitters, and there seem to be numerous bitters out there nowadays. But not all bitters are bitter. How would you define bitters?
It's true that there are many bitters on the market that do not have a bitter component/flavor to them. Some taste simply like a flavoring without any complexity. Generally, if you have a single flavor, say orange, that you macerate in a spirit we call that an infusion. So if you take orange peel and place in high proof vodka or neutral grain spirit, you have an orange-infusion.
Now for bitters, you have a lot more complexity than that one single flavor. You may have complementing flavors such as lemon, vanilla, mint, etc. When you start to compile multiple infusion, you're getting into the realm of bitters. Additionally, in my opinion, you need to also have some sort of bittering flavor/agent in the mix as well. Traditional bittering agents include wormwood, dandelion leaf, black walnut leaf and chichona bark.
Keep in mind that traditionally bitters were created by pharmacists and apothecaries as medicinal elixirs. They were created using herbs, barks, roots and other natural ingredients to cure just about any ailment you can imagine. Having these traditional bittering agents seem to harken back to the old days. For a definition of bitters, I would argue you need two or more infusions and a bittering agent.

How do bitters function in a drink?
As far as how they function in a drink, imagine cooking a pot of soup. You can combine the best stock, vegetables and cuts of meat and cook them with all the care in the world. When you taste it, you'll find something is off. Add some salt and pepper to the soup and suddenly it tastes like . . . soup! The flavors are heightened and seem to meld together.
Bitters in a cocktail act just like the salt and pepper in soup. They heighten flavors in the other ingredients and bring together seemingly incompatible flavors. Just as you can over-salt soup, you can over bitter drinks. Unless the recipe calls for more than a dash or two of bitters, no reason to over do it. Bitters should be a supporting character that makes everything else come together, not something that overshadows the other players.

What's the basic structure for a bitters recipe? What is the trickiest thing in making your own bitters?
There really isn't a set structure to making bitters. You can start with just about any base spirit, but a flavorless spirit such as vodka or grain alcohol doesn't impart any additional flavors that may not be wanted or desired. You can add all your ingredients into one pot and allow them to infuse or you can infuse each individual ingredient and combine to taste. The trickiest aspect is determining how much dry ingredient to use and for how long to infuse them.

Where would you recommend people start with making home bar items? A particular recipe, infusion?
I generally tell people to start with making their own syrups. The basic recipe is a one to one ratio of sugar to water. From there you can add whatever flavors you like. My spiced pumpkin liqueur is a good DIY liqueur, and great for the fall and winter.
And if you like bitters, you can try out my recipe for orange bitters.

You teach a bitters making class. What happens during a typical class?
During the bitters class we talk about the history of bitters in general and their use in cocktails. We discuss the different types of bitters and how bitters can be made at home. Plus I usually bring in between 10 and 20 unique flavors of bitters for people to try.

Who's your favorite bitters maker?
That's like asking who my favorite child is! Angostura and Peychaud's bitters are the most traditional aromatic bitters and widely available. These are my go-to for aromatic bitters. For other flavored bitters, I really like both The Bitter Truth and Bittermens.

Are there other applications for bitters and these liquors? Which bitters do you think are the most versatile?
I tell my students that if they only have one bottle of bitters in their home bar to make it Angostura. They are by far the most versatile. Bitters don't have to be added to cocktails. Put a few dashes into soda water for a refreshing soda. Angostura makes a great furniture stain. Bitters are also part of the best hiccup cure I've ever found - dredge a lemon wedge in sugar and then coat in Angostura bitters. Eat the flesh of the lemon and your hiccups will be gone.

Scofflaw's Den Orange Bitters
2 cups high-proof vodka
Zest of 4 oranges cut into strips
1/4 cup dried orange peel
4 cloves
1/4 of a vanilla pod
1/8 tsp black cardamom seeds
1/4 tsp lavender
1/2 tsp gentian root
1 c water
2 tbs rich simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water ratio)

Combine all dry ingredients in a sealable glass jar and add vodka. Store out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks shaking daily.

After 2 weeks, using cheesecloth, strain the solids out of the vodka, repeat until all the sediment has been filtered out. Place your infused vodka in a glass jar and set aside.

Place all the solids into a sauce pan with 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Cool the mixture to room temp and transfer to a sealable glass jar and infuse for one week shaking the jar daily.

After a week, using cheesecloth, strain the solids out of the water, repeating until all sediment has been filtered out.

Combine the infused vodka and infused water in a glass container and mix in the rich simple syrup. Let this sit for a couple of days until any remaining sediment collects at the bottom of the jar. Pour the clear liquid off the top and place in bitter bottles.