Three Chicago mixologists are using herbs to make bitters, potent taste accents for cocktails such as Manhattans, Tom Collins and Pisco Sours.
“Bitters are as important to cocktails as salt and pepper are to food; they somehow bring together disparate flavors,” Toby Maloney says. He ferments wormwood, lavender and licorice root in alcohol for two weeks in a cool, dark room at his nightclub, The Violet Hour. The bar is dotted with eyedropper vials of his finished product. He squirts splashes of bitters into cocktails, adding three drops on top for aroma.
Nacional 27’s Adam Seger ferments horehound, mugwort and Maria Treben Swedish Herb Mixture for his Pisco Sours. He learned by studying shelves at Chicago’s Merz Apothecary. “It reminds me of what one of those little shops in Harry Potter would look like. People thought I was crazy,” Seger says, describing his early experiments. Brown bubbles crept over one batch. Another “smelled like a hamster cage.” Seger added Brazil wood oil, “but then it smelled like a massage parlor.” Lavender helped achieve flavor balance.
“It’s challenging to find some herbs,” says Alex Rose, mixologist at The Bar in the Hotel InterContinental. He grows mint and orders others online. Rose steeps cloves and ginger for at least two weeks in 190-proof Everclear vodka to make Bitters 29, a complement for gin- or vodka-based drinks. For the Gold Coast, an enhancement to his Pisco Sour, he soaks cardamom and coriander in bourbon to create Equinox Bitters.
Veronica Hinke is a freelance food and travel writer.