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Local Libations: The Bitter Expat

2011 July 22

by Jessie Chien

Spice-market-vendorAfter reading about Andrew’s reinvention of the Sazerac, daydreams of Zydeco players, swampy screened-in front porches and fireflies at dusk danced around my head. But what would I, living in China, do with a Sazerac recipe?  There are no Zydeco players where I live. I don’t have access to the completely awesome spirits of Breukelen Distilling Co., or even the fairly simple luxury of getting my hands on some good vermouth.

I don’t often head to my boyfriend’s bookshelf for inspiration in the kitchen, but this time I indulged him by pulling a book from his stacks, entitled IMBIBE! by David Wondrich. The book is handy for its unique selection of historical anecdotes, useful information about ingredients, and a collection of concise recipes. Plus it has a beautiful cover that looks good on a man’s shelf.

After reading up on the Sazerac, absinthe, whiskey, and vermouth, I flipped ahead to a short section on bitters…

CLICK HERE for the full post & recipe.

It turns out that the bitters-making process is simply an infusion of various dried herbs, barks, roots, grasses and/or flowers steeped in a high-proof grain alcohol combined with your average brown alcohol, then mixed with a sugar concoction at the end to sweeten it up. I quickly realized the essence of all the ingredients in bitters was a reflection of all the ingredients of the Sazerac – both had elements of a high-proof, strong and clear alcohol mixed with a darker more traditional booze, combined with herbal qualities and a bit of sugar to sweeten it up.

Reading forward, IMBIBE! provided a traditional bitters recipe, which required chamomile flowers and gentian root. I had drunk chamomile flower tea at a restaurant that day during lunch, and had heard before that gentian root was an ingredient common in Chinese herbal medicines. Thus having been convinced that this recipe was completely doable in China, this crazy Expat decided to make bitters.

I headed off to my local herbal medicine market with a short list of translated names of the various barks and grasses that I would need for the bitters. The market is on a long street lined on both sides with shops decked floor to ceiling with jars and bags and buckets of every sort of dried bark, grass, peel, flower, spice, pit, seed, and powder imaginable. At that moment in my bitters-making adventure, I was actually thankful to be sourcing my ingredients in China. Fireflies on the Louisiana Bayou were being replaced by cockroaches scattering about the cracks in the back roads of Guangzhou – but I was okay with that. I showed my list to one of the vendors, and within 15 minutes I had all ingredients in my hand.

In honor of the Chinese affinity for Hennessey, I made it the not-too-expensive brandy base for my bitters. For the high-proof alcohol involved in the recipe, many online sources cited using Everclear or 151 proof rum. In China, there is a famous liquor consumed throughout the country called Baijiu, which literally translates into “white wine”, though it is hardly one nor the other. As clear as lighter fluid and just as potent, Baijiu is a sorghum distilled alcohol that is taken as shots over business dinners, wedding banquets, and any other celebratory gathering. It also has a high alcohol content of between 40-60%, so I knew immediately that it would be another unique contributor to my Made-in-China bitters.

Finally, Andrew’s idea of infusing tea into vermouth came after I had already established my bitters-making plan.  Never one to pass up an opportunity, I made a trip to the tea market with the intention to infuse my bitters with tea as Andrew had done with his vermouth. Without much hesitation I chose Pu’erh tea because of its popularity in Southern China, it’s relative locality (from Yunnan), and most importantly its flavor profile- a rich nose, herbal mouthful and sweeter taste.

I can’t wait to try these bitters in all kinds of good old fashioned American cocktails- Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs, Negronis, in a flute of champagne…but on this humid and smoggy day these bitters are absolutely perfect added to my club soda. I’m just fine passing along my new daydreams of Chinese medicine men, dragon boats, and carsts rising above the Li River.

The Bitter Expat

Prep Time: 10 days (minimum, 14-21 days optimal)

Tools: Large Jar, coffee filter/cheesecloth, fine-meshed sieve, large pot, small saucepan, measuring cups, dropper or small bottle for storage


  • ¼ oz. (7g) Chamomile Flowers, about 1 cup, loosely packed
  • ½ oz (14 g) Gentian root, about 1 cup
  • ½ oz Dried bitter orange peel, about 4 large strips
  • ½ oz (14 g) Cassia bark (aka Chinese cinnamon), 2 large strips
  • ½ oz (14 g) Calumba root, about ¼ cup
  • 30 oz (3.75 cup) Hennessey, or any other Brandy
  • 10 oz. (1.25 cup) Baijiu, or any other grain alcohol – preferably high-proof
  • 4 cups water
  • 3 Tbsp Pu’erh loose leaf (or brick) tea
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups hot water


  1. Combine first seven ingredients in a large, airtight jar.
  2. Allow to macerate for at least 10 days, storing the jar in a cool, dry place. Shake the contents of the jar at least once each day (the concoction should begin to smell like bitters after a few days- but will still have the taste of rocket fuel).
  3. On the last day of maceration, strain the mixture using a fine-meshed sieve lined with a coffee filter or cheesecloth. Set this strained liquid aside.What you have just filtered will be very potent and alcoholic, so it will need to be diluted.
  4. Place the solids that have been strained in a large pot with 4 cups of water. Let the water to come to a vigorous boil, then turn the heat down slightly and allow the water to simmer and reduce. 
  5. Meanwhile in a small saucepan, pour the 2 cups of sugar and set the burner on medium, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. After 5-7 minutes, the sugar will begin to clump together, looking like rock salt. After another 5 minutes, the sugar on the bottom will start to melt. At this point, make sure to keep stirring, until the sugar is completely melted and becomes a golden brown. Pour the hot water into the sugar syrup, mix thoroughly so all the sugar is dissolved and set aside to cool.
  6. Check on your simmering solids. The water should have reduced by almost 50%. Add 3 Tbsp. of tea, turn off the heat and let the mixture sit on the stove for 10 minutes.  
  7. Strain the boiled solids/tea mixture, again with a cheesecloth or coffee filter and a sieve. Allow the mixture to cool down slightly.
  8. Pour 1 cup of the reduced tea liquid into the originally strained liquid, along with 1 cup of the sugar syrup (or more, to suit your tastes).
  9. Bottle appropriately for use.  The bitters, due to its high alcohol content, can be stored for quite some time – years and years, even. 
  10. Finally, test your concoction: Pour soda water over ice and add one teaspoon of bitters. Sit back, and enjoy the hazy China sunset.

Note: Some bitters recipes called for at least 10 full days of maceration, some for 14 days and others for 21 days. I would like to have tried a full 14 days, so perhaps a future batch will tell me if it is worth the extra time.

Also, the bitters are ultimately sweetened by what is called a burnt sugar syrup- caramelized sugar thinned with water. Remember, you are soaking barks and leaves and grass in very alcoholic matter, so it must be sweetened a fair amount to be palatable. I chose to keep my recipe on the bitter end of things, but as you can see that’s still 2 cups of sugar. If you’re looking for something more akin to what’s sold on liquor store shelves I’d advise increasing the sugar by at least 50%.


The Bitter Expat - bitters and soda

  • Aisha

    I’m very impressed with your daring adventure into bitters, an ingredient I’m fond of, but have always considered very mysterious. After reading your post and gaining insight into the process behind bitters, the air of mystery remains intact. Hunting for barks and roots in the narrow streets of a Chinese medicine market…that’s the stuff of good bitters and good literature.

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