How to make coffee bitters

Yesterday’s Cocktail Camp event at Portland’s New Deal Distillery was a lot of fun. My presentation was about the use of coffee and tea and cocktails, so I’ve been trying out some interesting experiments that I’ll be posting here later this week. My talk ended up coming in two parts. In the first I gave a quick Coffee 101 lecture, discussed the basics of brewing, and explained why coffee can be a difficult ingredient to work with in a bar setting. Many of us craft bartenders treat it horribly. We’d never serve citrus juice that we’d squeezed a week ago but we essentially do that with coffee by using stale beans, pre-grinding, or just not brewing properly. Many standard coffee cocktails could be improved simply by getting the fundamentals right.

However some bartenders may not have access to good coffee and we may not want to limit coffee cocktails to hot drinks, so in part two we got to the fun part: Actually making cocktails using coffee as an ingredient in other ways. One of these is by making coffee bitters. Lance Mayhew and I started working on our first batch of these in December and are really happy with the recipe we’ve developed since then. It’s fairly simple so we hope others will try them out as well. The ingredients are:

750 ml Lemonhart 151-proof rum
peel from two medium-sized oranges
24 g coffee, coarsely ground with a mortar and pestle
approximately 2.5 g orris root*
1 star anise

Combine all ingredients in a jar and let steep, tasting daily to check their progress; 4 days to a week will probably be enough time. Decant through a fine mesh strainer and transfer to a bitters bottle.

For the coffee we used Stumptown’s Costa Rica Herbazu in each batch for the sake of consistency. I’m curious to see how other coffees might affect the bitters, but I think any Central American coffee that hasn’t been too darkly roasted should be fine.

The above recipe makes a lot of bitters and uses an entire bottle of rum, so feel free to halve or quarter it for a smaller yield. And for a cocktail to use them in, try the Antigua Old-Fashioned featuring English Harbour rum.

* Update 4/18/10: Quick clarification: This is dried, chopped orris root, not powder.


11 thoughts on “How to make coffee bitters”

  1. That was a very tasty bitters.

    Did you say that this coffee had been fermented on its pulp?

  2. thanks again for this recipe, Jacob!

    I could only find powdered orris root, so I emptied out a teabag, put in the powder, and tied it shut again. that worked just fine, although I probably should’ve thought more about how to adjust the proportions to account for the greater potency of the powdered stuff.

  3. Hi Jacob,

    I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to catch your presentation last month at New Deal. I heard that it was great.

    I’m curious… what role does the orris root play in the bitters? I know that traditionally in herbal preparations, it’s used as a fixative or binder.



  4. @Pekio: It’s used to provide some background bitterness. If I remember correctly in one of our first batches we used gentian as well, but decided to pull things back by just using orris root.

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