There are many good uses of rhubarb, but none better than aromatic cocktail bitters. Here's a recipe from Seattle's Sun Liquor Distillery.
NOTHING SAYS springtime like rhubarb.
When the tall red stalks are in season, I like to savor them in as many ways as possible: pickled, baked in pies, simmered into compote, soaked in a sweet syrup and infused into cocktail bitters.
Aromatic cocktail bitters are made by steeping a combination of bark, roots, herbs, spices or flowers in a neutral high-proof spirit. The highly concentrated elixir is added in dashes to brighten and balance drinks. A few drops can also transform seltzer water.
At their best, rhubarb bitters taste, of course, tart and grassy like rhubarb, but they also wow the palate with citrus and spice tones. I was searching for a DIY recipe that produced this trifecta of rhubarb, citrus and spice. Some best-selling rhubarb bitters are overly sweet and perfumed due to artificial flavors and glycerin. I was after purity.
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My quest led me to Sun Liquor Distillery on East Pike Street. Five years ago, Sun’s lead distiller, Erik Chapman, set out to make aromatic bitters from all-natural, wheat-based spirits. Many other lines are made from corn-based Everclear or high-proof vodka, often with artificial additives. Chapman sought a natural rhubarb flavor without chemicals, sugars or other additives. At Sun, he makes spirits from organic, non-GMO wheat and uses those to make Sun’s collection of bitters, including lemon, orange, grapefruit and Rainier cherry.
“I love rhubarb and wanted to let the flavor of the fruit shine on its own,” Chapman says. He buys rhubarb from Case Farm, near where he grew up on Whidbey Island. At Sun’s two Capitol Hill locations, bartenders use rhubarb bitters in classic cocktails such as the Bee’s Knees. “It’s a power-packed recipe — one of the oldest — with lemon, honey and gin, three ingredients that are best friends,” he says. “Adding a few dashes of rhubarb bitters turns the drink three-dimensional.”
At home, Chapman drinks seltzer with rhubarb bitters, and his wife likes to add the bitters to ice cream. Chapman says they are also delicious in salad dressings and shrubs (drinking vinegars).
To make rhubarb bitters at home, you’ll need to source quality dried botanicals from an herb or spice shop such as Dandelion Botanical Company in Ballard. Chapman developed this recipe for home mixologists, taking advantage of fresh, local rhubarb and Sun’s UNXLD vodka. You also could make it with another high-quality neutral spirit.
It might be hard to wait a week for the bitters to steep, but it’s worth it: You’ll be able to preserve that unique rhubarb flavor until next season.
Sun Liquor Aromatic Rhubarb Bitters
1 750-ml bottle of Sun Liquor UNXLD organic wheat vodka (84 proof/42 percent alcohol by volume)
12 ounces fresh rhubarb, rinsed and sliced thinly
2 ounces cassia bark
¼ ounce green cardamom pods, roughly broken to expose seeds
6 whole cloves
1 ounce grains of paradise
½ ounce juniper berries
½ ounce coriander seeds
Peel of 1 orange (orange zest only)
1. Soak all ingredients in a glass jar with a lid or in a small oak barrel for seven days or to taste. Shake every day.
2. Strain with cheesecloth, and pour the bitters into small bottles. Enjoy them in your favorite cocktail, seltzer or dessert.
Bitters will last indefinitely, but the flavor will change over time.
Note: Spent botanicals may be used once more by infusing them in honey syrup. Combine equal parts water and honey, dissolve on stovetop, remove from heat and infuse botanicals for about 10 minutes. Strain, then keep syrup in the refrigerator with a lid. Use in drinks, desserts or cooking.