Evaluating Bittering Agents
Before I actually finish the crazy orange chocolate bitters I wrote about a while back I decided it would be worthwhile to familiarize myself with the flavor profiles of the three most commonly used bittering agents: cinchona bark, gentian root and quassia wood. Recipes for making aromatic bitters generally specify using one, two or even all three of these but they don’t talk about what qualities each brings to the mixture. I figured the easiest way to figure that out was to do a little taste testing of my own.
The first thing I did was to create a simple tincture of three agents by themselves. Each was made the same way: 5 gm was weighed and put into 50 ml of 150 proof Everclear and left for approximately 15 days. I left the agent in whatever “natural” form it came in when I purchased it from my local herb store – e.g. the cinchona was in large chunks, the quassia in chips and the gentian in short sections of root.
Once the tinctures were done, I evaluated them for color, nose and taste. Tasting was done two ways. First undiluted by putting a single drop of the tincture on the back of my hand and then licking it. Second by putting 5 drops into an ounce of filtered water at room temperature. Here are the notes:
- Color: deep copper brown-red
- Nose: earthy/sweet notes; faint cola/vanilla scent
- Taste (pure): earthy and surprisingly sweet (enough to mask the heat of the alcohol). A little drying on the palate but w/o a particularly bitter finish.
- Taste (diluted): very similar to the straight tincture with the sweetness showing up as a very mild almost nutty aftertaste.
- Color: pale yellow
- Nose: slight woody notes, a little smoky-sweet. vaguely like licorice. Also a little bit of turpentine.
- Taste (pure): bitter but not intensely so with a hint of the sweet notes one finds in licorice.
- Taste (diluted): bitterness comes a little forward tasted this way and the sweetness is almost gone.
- Color: dark amber
- Nose: earthy/clay notes; slightly vegetal.
- Taste (pure): Intensely bitter with a very long bitter finish. The flavor of single drop persists for several minutes.
- Taste (diluted): The bitterness was even more expressed when I diluted it in water. Rather amazing.
Of the the three agents I tasted, I found the cinchona and the quassia the most appealing and complex. I am sure to try using both of these when I finish my bitters. I was particularly surprised by the cinchona, which I expected to express some of the tartness I experience when I drink tonic water. Instead I found that it showed an unexpected sweetness which stood up nicely to the heat of the Everclear. And as far at the gentian goes, I’d say the only reason to add it would be to “pump” the overall sensation of bitterness without introducing a new flavoring element.
A few days ago I filtered my chocolate orange bitters, removing the cacao nibs and the fresh orange peel I had added a few weeks back. I decided what they needed next was a dose of cinnamon, so I added a few quills and am now monitoring the flavor every day to gauge the effect. (I must say, by the way, they are really tasting pretty good at this point.) Once the cinnamon level is where I want it to be, I’ll pull that out and make a few test mixtures using my cinchona and quassia tinctures. Almost done….maybe.
[CODA: I would very much like to acknowledge Jamie Boudreau's blog post on how to make bitters from April of last year. Reading it convinced me that my bitter components testing would be a worthwhile exercise.]