Orgeat syrup


This almond-flavoured syrup, pronounced orr-zha (as in Zsa Zsa Gabor), crops up in quite few cocktail recipes, especially in the Tiki style (Mai Tai, for example). But I wanted to try a Japanese cocktail, invented by Harry MacElhone back when he ran Harry’s American Bar in the 1920s (the recipe has no particularly Japanese ingredients, but was supposedly developed to honour a Japanese delegation, visiting Paris at the time). But my online research suggested that most modern commercial versions are just sugar syrup with almond flavouring, and as a result, a bit disappointing.

In the spirit of MacElhone’s original I wanted to make my own, so I found recipes to make syrup from almonds and sugar, with the addition of some vodka and orange blossom water. The recipe I used came from the Serious Eats website, so it is only fair I direct you to them for the ingredients & method. The process will only take an hour or so, plus some overnight cooling & steeping of the almond and sugar mixture, but be warned, it is a sticky business. I used blanched almonds to get a paler syrup, but you can use skin-on almonds for a darker result (and possibly more flavour). I used the orange blossom water option (you can use rosewater, but I don’t like its perfume-y overtones).

I found the final results missed the hit of bitter almonds I was expecting, so if I made it again, I would add a quantity of good quality natural almond essence, and the ratio of sugar-to-water produces a very sweet liquid, so I would reduce the sugar as well.

As most recipes that use the syrup call for a single measure or less, the small bottle produced by the recipe will certainly last the month suggested for storage, unless you are planning a Tiki party.

Bitters (6) – grapefruit & friends

My trio of bitters
My trio of bitters

I have now bottled the latest batch of grapefruit bitters (named ‘Bg’). The use of the Italian strong alcohol has given the bitters a real kick, but the citrus of the grapefruit really shines through. The bitters are excellent in the Death in Florence cocktail, a variation I made on the original Death in Venice , invented by Tony Conigliaro. I changed the recipe to use Aperol, as I prefer the lighter, more orange flavour of this drink to the robust Campari of the original.

This flavour now completes the trio of bitters I have made: a ‘house’ bitter, made with sour cherries; a clove bitter with plenty of spices & the grapefruit bitters, with a strong citrus, sage & lavender flavours.

Bitters (5) – grapefruit

Grapefruit bitters, now steeping in 95% alcohol
Grapefruit bitters, now steeping in 95% alcohol

I was looking to make another batch of bitters, this time using my 95% alcohol, which I found in an Italian supermarket during the summer. Inspiration came when I discovered a fantastic recipe from Tony Conigliaro for the Death in Venice cocktail – a combination of Campari, prosecco, and a hit of grapefruit bitters; this is a cocktail that features at both 69 Colebrook Row & the Grain Store, so it comes highly recommended.

As this seemed like the perfect Christmas drink, and indeed was featured in an article about Christmas drinks, I went off to find a suitable recipe for this variety of bitters.

I soon found one on the Serious Eats website, written by Marcia Simmons: the mix of grapefruit, juniper, lavender, coriander & a battering agent, seemed to have the right sort of flavour profile to make this cocktail really sing, so I have been making a version at home. Marcia used 100˚ proof vodka, rather than over-proof alcohol, as she described trying to get a mellower flavour with her bitters. I have opted for the Italian 95% alcohol, as I would like my bitters to have little more attack. I will describe the results in two or three weeks.


Bitters (4) – clove & coriander

Bitters #2 - clove and cardamom
Bitters #2 – clove and cardamom

For my next batch of bitters, I decided on a more spice-mixed base to see how these flavours would play with rye and other spirits better. I adapted a clove & cardamom recipe that I found online at In that strange way that some herbs & spices are available in some countries, but not others, the cinchona bark used in the recipe is hard to come by in the UK. Instead, I used quassia chips, but reduced the quantities as I understand they are a lot more bitter than cinchona.


300ml of tsikoudia from Crete

1/2 tbs. of cardamom seeds, cracked

1/2 tbs. of allspice, cracked

1 tbs. of cloves, cracked.

10 gr. of cinnamon sticks (about two 10cm. sticks)

1 tsp. of cassia bark

1/2 tsp. of quassia chips

1/2 tsp. of gentian root, broken up

1 tbs. of dried orange peel

zest of 1/2 orange

I put the spice ingredients into a mortar & pestle, and gave them a gentle grind, as I want pieces in the steeping liquor, not dust. Then I placed all the dry ingredients into a clean Kilner jar & poured over the spirit. These will be given a daily shake, and I’ll proceed to the next step in a couple of weeks.

Update (01/08/14): The mixture is now very rich, with a very bitter taste. I felt it needed a bit of a citrus lift, so I have added the zest of a lime to add an extra kick.

Update (08/08/14): The liquid is now strained into a small bottle, whilst the solids go into a saucepan with enough water to cover them. I’ll boil these together for 10 minutes, then cool and bottle them (water & solids) in my Kilner jar as before.

Update (31/08/14): The alcohol mixture has now been mixed with liquid from the solids jar (strained) and 2 tablespoons of a rich sugar syrup. The flavour gas a massive kick of cloves and cinnamon, so I am debating whether to call these Christmas, rather than just clove, bitters…

Bitters (3)

The first batch of House bitters is bottled.
The first batch of House bitters is bottled.

The bitters I have made from the ‘House’ recipe in Brad Parson’s Bitters book are now bottled and ready to use.

I was really pleased by the way my first attempt turned out: the sour cherries in the recipe have given the bitters a fantastic fruity kick, with vanilla and star anise notes from the spices. I would like to make the recipe a little stronger next time; perhaps I need to find a stronger alcohol base for the extraction in future.

I have bottled the bitters in some herbal remedy bottles that I picked up on my shopping trip to Baldwin’s, and these not only give the bitters a professional touch, but also make them easier to use. The design of the label is taken from the Periodic Table, and I took the idea of ‘Bt’ element name from the original ‘BTP House bitters’ recipe, in homage to Brad Parsons.

3-4 drops at a time of the bitters adds a fantastic depth of flavour to my drinks, and I have successfully used this recipe in my Manhattan and Old-Fashioned cocktails recently.

I am now thinking about the flavours I want to use in the next batch – perhaps using traditional English flavourings like sloes or similar.


Bernard Filliers samples the family product in Belgium
Bernard Filliers – click to read the whole article in The Independent

There is a very interesting piece in The Independent about the return of interest in Dutch Genever – the drink that we British adopted and modified into the London Dry Gin, enjoyed worldwide in the classic  gin & tonic now. What piqued my interest was the description of it being ideal for use in an Old-Fashioned, which is one of my favourite cocktails, and I have already detailed in a previous post.

Genever is described as being much more complex and malty than our familiar dry spirit, closer in flavour terms to a whisky than the white spirit of a London Dry

Today being Friday, I am considering walking down to the Whisky Exchange to see if they have any bottles.


Whole articles have been written about the use of ice in drinks, and with good reason (Esquire magazine ran a very good article on the subject, which is well worth reading).

If you think about the ingredients by volume, then in a mixed drink, the ice is going to be the single largest item by a long way. Which does mean that the quality of ice is going to have a significant influence on the quality of your drink. At the very least, this means choosing a source of ice rather than that single ice tray you have had at the back of the freezer, under the bag of peas, for the last year or so. Ice goes stale after prolonged storage, so fresh ice is an absolute must.

Secondly, tap water doesn’t make brilliant ice, it must be said, depending on where you live. Some people can detect a chlorine taint, or a distinct flavour, so the simplest solution here is to run your water through a Brita water filter first if you are planning to make your own – or, to get rid of the chlorine hint, let the water stand in a jug for a while before freezing.

The next thing to realise when you start mixing drinks is the sheer volume of ice you will need: a single shaken cocktail will need enough ice to fill the jar section of your Boston shaker, which is about the quantity a single freezer ice tray will produce at a time.

The simple solution to all of this is to plan ahead and buy your ice in bulk from a supermarket. Commercially-made ice is slow-frozen (so the cubes are attractively clear), and made from filtered or natural spring water – so has no discernible flavour. My local Tesco has filtered-water ice cubes in bags for around £2, and I find three bags are more than enough (usually) for a cocktail evening with friends.

The last solution is to buy a home ice-maker. I found a second-hand one on eBay for £20 which has proved to be very effective – from filling to first ice takes around 25 minutes, and I run it for a few hours, bag the ice & store it in my home freezer for use over the following few weeks. I also filter the water through a Brita jug first. The only downside is that the quick-freezing process used by the ice machine produces characteristically ‘cloudy’ cubes. I don’t find this a problem for my own drinks, but if I am friends over, I will buy the clear bagged ice, as above.

Bitters (2) – Home made

The first batch of BTP House bitters is cooked up.
The first batch of BTP House bitters is cooked up.

I received a copy of Brad Thomas Parsons brilliant book, Bitters, for a recent birthday. Besides being a thorough history of this often-overlooked cocktail ingredient, Mr Parsons also includes several recipes to try at home. Naturally, I had to try one for myself, so settled on his signature recipe: BTP House bitters.

Over the last last week I have visited various herbalists in London to stock up on the ingredients, which has been fascinating in itself. The herbalist at Neal’s Yard was very interested in the items as I was buying – not least because the quassia chips (Quassia amara) are apparently an unusual purchase due to their incredible bitterness, so coupled with the gentian root (Gentiana lutea) also on the list – she was wondering what I could be making. When I told her the story of the Bitters book, she was delighted to share advice about extracting the properties from the herbs, and how they might treat common stomach ailments when the recipe was finished. She also directed me to London’s oldest herbalist, Baldwin’s to pick up the final few items – cassia bark (Cinnamomum aromaticum) and vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) as they were out of stock. Again, when the Baldwin’s herbalist discovered what I was making, he insisted in opening a new pack of vanilla to get the freshest pod available to infuse properly. So, even if my recipe isn’t a success, I have discovered a whole new subject in herbalism.

The biggest problem in making the bitters, here in the UK at least, is the strong alcohol required for the extraction to work. Most UK spirits are sold at 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), and stronger spirits are difficult to come by. I was directed to look for Polish Rectified Spirits among our Polish community in London, and the Neal’s Yard herbalist recommended I start making herbal tonics, as this would allow me to register for the purchase of the pure medicinal alcohol required for their extractions.

In the end, I discovered a closer solution to home – a quantity of strong Cretan tsikoudia (aka tsipouro, or just ‘raki’) I had brought back from holidays on the island. Well-made tsikoudia is very pleasant as a digestif, so I thought it would make a good base for my first bitters batch. It is also a pretty strong spirit – not in the realm of Everclear perhaps – but certainly strong enough for my needs. And the bottle I had at home had a pleasantly herby scent (the spirit changes depending on the distiller, and wide varieties of flavour exist across the island and even village-to-village).

Last night, I mixed up the ingredients in a preserving jar, and already the aroma they give off is incredibly tantalizing. The ingredients in this batch are: orange peel (dried and fresh), sour cherries, cassia, quassia, cloves, cinnamon, walnut leaf, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon & gentian – but if you want the proportions, you need to read Mr Parson’s book.

More information in around two weeks, when the alcohol will have extracted all of the good things from the herb, spice & fruit mix in the jar.


Spirits are the basics of any cocktail bar, and the question is how many do you need? The answer depends on one’s tastes, and the drinks needed to be made.

A quick inventory of my cupboard shows the following stock:

Smirnoff, Blue label
Gordon’s dry
Bombay Sapphire, 90 proof
Bulleit, 90 proof
Noilly Prat
Kina Lillet
Martini Rosso
Velho Barreira
White Rum
Dark rum
The Glenrothes, select reserve
Tullibardine, 10 year old
Balvenie Double Wood, 12 year old
Tallisker, 10 year old
Canadian Club, 6 year old                                                                                     Tequila                                                                                                                                           El Jimador

Plus various liqueurs (Kahlua, Triple Sec, Cointreau) and various others (home made lemon and cranberry vodkas, spiced rum and so on).


The story of bitters, the complex flavouring ingredients added only by drops to a cocktail, are as long as the history of cocktails themselves. Brands have come and gone over the years (check out the long-running search for Abbott bitters if you would like to see just how far drink fans will go), but I do believe that decent bitters lift an ordinary mixed drink into the proper cocktail category. I think that can be proved by mixing a couple of simple Martinis – to one, add a few drops of Fee’s Orange Bitters, then compare. The citrus hit from the Fee’s draws the combination of gin and vermouth together in a way the plain Martini lacks.

But where do you start? The obvious place is a single bottle of the classic Angostura Bitters. After that, a bottle of Fee’s Orange Bitters are a good addition to the cabinet, and then you can start adding the extra flavours and styles.

My starting recommendations:


Fee’s Orange

Bob’s Bitters: Abbott’s style


With just these four bottles, you have the foundations for decent Martinis, Manhattans & Sazeracs.