Build-A-Bar: Epazote Bitters

Epazote Bitters Mise en Place.
Epazote Bitters Mise en Place.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

No, these are not commercially available. No, you can't go down to your local drinkery and get a sample, mixed into a cocktail or dashed sparingly into a glass of soda water. No, I didn't win them in some crazy online bitters auction, to be stored away like some sort or weird alcoholic fetish or waxed-mustache-set status symbol. Yes, you can have some. You just have to make them, first.

I've been interested in bitters for about as long as I've been interested in the craft of cocktails. The cook in me knows that, just as salt is integral to the success of nearly every food preparation generally considered delicious, so are bitters the key to nuanced, balanced cocktails. Sure, you can make delicious cocktails without them, but nothing can bring quite the same sense of finesse and finality as a dash or two of judiciously selected bitters. They enhance some flavors, tame others, and bring their own sometimes subtle, sometimes pronounced character to bear in a drink, rounding things out and bringing them more fully together. Bitters are like cocktail magic.

They're also, in their own way, surprisingly easy to make. About a week after I started my batch of Epazote Bitters, my wife got me a copy of Brad Parsons's excellent Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All. Part history lesson, part how-to guide, part cocktail recipe treasure trove, the book is Parsons's love letter to bitters, and would have been a helpful guide in crafting my second ever batch of bitters, the first one I've attempted from scratch.

As it is, I just kind of winged it. I got the itch out of the same sense of thrift that inspired my epazote-laced fried rice a while back, and relied on the same leftover ingredient. The project for which I'd originally acquired this odd herb only required a scant amount, and I had a lot left over. The rice applied it in similarly sparing fashion, so I was still left with a large bunch of the stuff. That, and I'd been intending to make these bitters for a while, after a Twitter brainstorming session with a few bright local food minds, wherein we had discussed the herb's cocktail possibilities.

To begin, I grabbed a bottle of Everclear. High proof, neutral spirits are a great base for bitters, as the high alcohol content both encourages rapid infusion of flavor and helps prevent spoilage, and its lack of flavor allows your chosen ingredients to shine. I emptied the liter bottle into a glass jar, submerging the epazote in it. I tossed in a cup of mezcal, as well, in an attempt to bring in just a hint of smoke, which I figured would play nicely with the slightly sooty flavor of the epazote.

Building flavors from there, I zested a couple of limes, adding the fragrant shavings to the jar. Epazote's strident flavors work very well with acid and citrus, which balances and tames its wild character. A tablespoon of cumin seed and a cinnamon stick also went in; the cumin for depth, and the cinnamon for that and its bittering qualities. I closed the lid and stuck it in the back corner of my bar cabinet to steep. I figure it will take about a month to fully mature, but I plan on checking every so often, starting with once a week and increasing to daily as the flavors develop.

A couple of days ago, I gave it a check. The cumin comes on strong, punctuated by a slight epazote herbal flavor, with the barest hint of creosote. A mild bitterness follows, chased out by a cleansing and brightening hint of lime. It has a brilliant green color, as the alcohol has leached the chlorophyll from the herb. I removed the spent epazote and discarded it, replacing it with a fresh bunch I'd picked up at the store. In about another week, I'll do the same, straining out the cumin and cinnamon at the same time. I like the earthy and spicy notes they bring, but want to give the epazote a chance to come through more clearly.

While I'm not satisfied with the results, yet, I wanted to start thinking through some potential uses for my epazote bitters. I knew I wanted a lot of acid, for balance and brightness, but also wanted to focus in on the vegetal qualities of the herb. I started with tequila (1.50z), which seems appropriate, bringing in bitterness, brightness, and a hint of sugar with Campari (.5oz). The citrus went in next, half an ounce each of fresh lemon and lime. A barspoon of saba to round out the sweet end of the profile, and two dashes of epazote bitters. Shaken with ice, and strained into a cocktail glass, it was a pretty good drink.

It had a subtly savory character (I'm pointing to the bitters for that) enlivened by all the citrus, with a pleasantly bitter tug. It was a bit unbalanced, with the sugar coming on a bit strong. I added a few drops of bitters directly to the top of the drink, allowing their pungent aroma to bloom and envelop the senses as the drink was sipped. That did the trick. I'm sure I'll have to play around with the drink more, as the bitters develop and change. I'm also considering a pretty shameless cocktail riff on the salsa verde at La Guadalupana (Iguana Lupana, to some), where I first fell in love with this enigmatic herb.

I'll let you know how the finished bitters, and resulting cocktails, turn out. In the meantime, why not try your own hand at making some bitters? You don't have to do anything as weird as fish sauce or epazote. A simple orange bitters would be fun, for example. The process is enlightening, regardless, offering insight into what makes a cocktail great and resulting (hopefully) in something delicious.



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