DIY Gifts: Homemade Manhattan Cocktails

| December 6, 2013 | 1 Comment
  • 1 Comment
Give the gift of DIY cocktails this season with homemade vermouth, angostura bitters, and maraschino-style cherries perfect for mixing into a homemade Manhattan cocktail. Photo: Kate Williams

Give the gift of DIY cocktails this season with homemade vermouth, angostura bitters, and maraschino-style cherries perfect for mixing into a homemade Manhattan cocktail. Photo: Kate Williams

Now that we’ve all feasted on turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and pie, it’s time to turn our attention to gift season. I’ve never been one to shell out the big bucks for holiday gifts, but it is nice to shower friends and family with small, personal gifts, especially if I’ve made them with my own two hands.

And what makes a better gift than DIY cocktail supplies? This kind of gift is cute, unique, and way more useful than another pair of hand-knit socks. Best of all, it’s surprisingly easy to make the components of one of my favorite cocktails, the Manhattan. Well, all of the components except for the rye whiskey. That one, I’ll leave to the experts.

While the long, unfamiliar ingredient list and expensive liquor store price tag may trick many intrepid cocktail drinkers into thinking that angostura bitters and sweet vermouth are difficult to make, these key cocktail components are actually little more than sweet, infused booze. To make them at home, one only needs to steep, strain, and sweeten. Brandied maraschino-style cherries are even easier.

Angostura bitters are made by steeping a mixture of herbs and spices into high proof alcohol. Pictured here are, from the left and moving clockwise: Ceylon cinnamon, vanilla bean, bitter orange peel, gentian root, dried cherries, quassia bark, cardamom pods, wild cherry bark, cloves, juniper berries, black walnut leaf, and orris root. Photo: Kate Williams

Angostura bitters are made by steeping a mixture of herbs and spices into high proof alcohol. Pictured here are, from the left and moving clockwise: Ceylon cinnamon, vanilla bean, bitter orange peel, gentian root, dried cherries, quassia bark, cardamom pods, wild cherry bark, cloves, juniper berries, black walnut leaf, and orris root. Photo: Kate Williams

In fact, the hardest step in the entire process is the first one: buying supplies. Both bitters and vermouth rely upon a couple of key bittering agents called gentian and quassia. Gentian is a root that comes from high altitude regions like the Alps and Himalayas and is one of the world’s strongest bitters. Quassia is sold as a bark, and has historically been used to cure fevers and stomach aches. In addition, other sweet, savory, and tannic herbs are included to balance and enhance the flavor. Wild cherry bark, orris root, juniper, black lavender, wormwood, chamomile, and sage all play a part. Some are easily procurable in the bulk section of health food stores or large grocery stores like Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods, and Rainbow. Others require a special trip to an herb shop (online or in person). It’s actually quite fun to experiment with all of these unfamiliar herbs—almost like potion-making 101.

Once everything is procured, it’s time to get organized. The bitters and cherries take 5–7 days to infuse; vermouth only takes 24 hours. I like to measure every herb out for each project before I start just to make sure I’ve got enough of everything.

I make my angostura bitters with a blend of fruity elements (vanilla, sour cherries, cherry bark, and turbinado sugar), spicy herbs (Ceylon cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and juniper), and several different bitter components (quassia, gentian, bitter orange peel, orris root, and black walnut leaf). I put all of these spices into a large canning jar and cover them with high-proof whiskey like Wild Turkey 101.

I find it easiest to strain bitters into a large measuring cup with a spout so I can easily pour the mixture into smaller bottles. Photo: Kate Williams

I find it easiest to strain bitters into a large measuring cup with a spout so I can easily pour the mixture into smaller bottles. Photo: Kate Williams

Once a day, I give the jar a gentle shake to make sure everything is getting equal contact with the booze. After 5 days, I strain out the mixture into a large measuring cup. (The spout will make it much easier to get the bitters into bottles.) Next, I make a concentrated simple syrup by heating 1 cup turbinado sugar and 3/4 cup water in a small saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Once this is cooled, I add it to the bitters mixture a tablespoon at a time until the mixture is appropriately sweet. I like my bitters to be around 18% sugar by volume, so I add 6 tablespoons.

Give it a good stir, pour the bitters into small dropper bottles, and that’s it—homemade bitters! This recipe makes around 2 cups, so there’s plenty for gifting and personal use.

My sweet vermouth recipe includes (from far left, moving clockwise): turbinado sugar, orange peel, lemon peel, Ceylon cinnamon, raisins, wormwood, gentian root, juniper berries, coriander seeds, dried sage, cardamom pods, and chamomile. Photo: Kate Williams

My sweet vermouth recipe includes (from far left, moving clockwise): turbinado sugar, orange peel, lemon peel, Ceylon cinnamon, raisins, wormwood, gentian root, juniper berries, coriander seeds, dried sage, cardamom pods, and chamomile. Photo: Kate Williams

Next: sweet vermouth. At its core, sweet vermouth is simply wine fortified with liquor and sugar. Additional aromatics are added to the wine for flavor. Like the angostura bitters, I’m using a blend of fruit, spice, and bitterness. To steep the wine, I combine a bottle of Pinot Grigio with all of the herbs and spices in a small saucepan. I bring the mixture just to a simmer, remove it from the heat, and let the pot sit overnight. The next day, I strain out the herbs, and then add turbinado sugar syrup, brandy, and ruby port to the wine. Again, super simple.

These maraschino-style cherries are made with affordable Bing cherries, sugar, brandy, vanilla, and almond extract. Photo: Kate Williams

These maraschino-style cherries are made with affordable Bing cherries, sugar, brandy, vanilla, and almond extract. Photo: Kate Williams

For the final touch, I like to make faux “maraschino” brandied cherries. True maraschino cherries (not the saccharine, neon variety atop ice cream sundaes) are made by soaking small sour cherries in a liquor made from the same fruit. Both sour cherries and maraschino liquor are fairly hard to come by, so I’ve come up with a more accessible version: easy-to-find Bing cherries (fresh or frozen work fine) are steeped in a mixture of brandy, sugar, vanilla, and a dash of almond liquor.

If you’re planning on giving these as a DIY Manhattan kit, be sure to include a small bottle of rye and a short drink recipe (2 parts whiskey, 1 part vermouth, a few drops of bitters, and a cherry) to complete the package.

Homemade angostura bitters, homemade sweet vermouth, and homemade maraschino-style cherries. Photo: Kate Williams

Homemade angostura bitters, homemade sweet vermouth, and homemade maraschino-style cherries. Photo: Kate Williams

Recipe: Angostura Bitters

Makes about 1 3/4 cups

    Ingredients:

  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 1/4 cup sour cherries
  • 3 tablespoons quassia chips
  • 3 tablespoons gentian root
  • 1/2 Ceylon cinnamon stick
  • 2 large pieces dried bitter orange peel
  • 5 whole cardamom pods, lightly crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon wild cherry bark
  • 1/4 teaspoon orris root
  • 2 juniper berries
  • Pinch of black walnut leaf
  • 2 cups high proof whiskey (like Wild Turkey 101)
  • 1 cup turbinado sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
    Equipment:

  • 1 1-quart glass jar with tight-fitting lid
  • 1 small saucepan
  • 3–4 dropper bottles or recycled bitters bottles
    Instructions:

  1. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds using the back of a paring knife. Place the seeds and the pod in a 1-quart glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add the gentian root, sour cherries, quassia chips, Ceylon cinnamon, bitter orange, cardamom pods, cloves, cherry bark, orris root, juniper berries, and black walnut leaf.
  2. Add 2 cups of whiskey to the jar and stir to combine. Cover the jar with the lid and store in a cool dark place for 5 days.
  3. Strain the whiskey mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a large liquid measuring cup with a spout, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.
  4. Combine turbinado sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir frequently until the sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
  5. Add 6 tablespoons of turbinado syrup to the bitters mixture, and stir well to combine. Add more sugar to taste.
  6. Carefully pour bitters into dropper bottles. If bitters become cloudy over time, shake the bottle gently to recombine. DIY bitters will keep for about 1 year.

Recipe: Sweet Vermouth

Makes about 3 cups

    Ingredients:

  • 1 (750 mL) bottle light white wine (like Pinot Grigio)
  • 2 tablespoons raisins
  • 1/2 Ceylon cinnamon stick
  • 1 3-inch-long strip of orange peel
  • 1 2-inch-long strip lemon peel
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried wormwood leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried gentian root
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried chamomile leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon juniper berries
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried sage
  • 1/4 teaspoon cardamom pods, lightly crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1/2 cup turbinado sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 2 tablespoons ruby port
    Equipment:

  • 1 small saucepan with lid
  • 2 glass swing-top bottles or recycled glass milk bottles
    Instructions:

  1. Combine the wine with the raisins, Ceylon cinnamon, orange peel, lemon peel, wormwood leaves, gentian root, chamomile, juniper berries, sage, cardamom, and coriander in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and then remove from the heat. Let cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
  2. The next day, strain the wine mixture through a fine mesh strainer set over a large liquid measuring cup or bowl with a spout. Wash saucepan.
  3. Combine turbinado sugar and water in cleaned saucepan. Place over medium heat and let sugar melt, stirring frequently. Once all of the sugar has dissolved, remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in brandy and port.
  4. Add sugar and brandy mixture to strained wine, and stir to combine. Pour into swing top glass bottles. Store sweet vermouth in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks.

Recipe: Maraschino-Style Cherries

Makes about 3 cups

    Ingredients:

  • 1/2 vanilla bean
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 cup brandy
  • 1 teaspoon high quality bitter almond extract
  • 1 pound fresh or frozen cherries, washed, stemmed, and pitted (if using frozen, defrost by running cherries under cool water before using)
    Equipment:

  • 1 1-quart glass jar with tight-fitting lid
  • 1 small saucepan
    Instructions:

  1. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds using the back of a paring knife. Place the seeds and the pod in a small saucepan with the granulated sugar and water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir frequently until the sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in brandy and almond extract.
  2. Place cherries in a 1-quart glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Pour sugar and brandy syrup over cherries. Cover and refrigerate until cherries have absorbed the syrup, about 5 days. The cherries will keep for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.

Recipe: DIY Manhattan

Makes 1 cocktail

    Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1 maraschino cherry
  • Angostura bitters, to taste
    Equipment:

  • Cocktail shaker
  • Ice
  • 1 coupe glasses
    Instructions:

  1. Pour the whiskey, sweet vermouth, and a couple of dashes of bitters into a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until outside of shaker is very cold to touch.
  2. Place a maraschino cherry in chilled coupe glasses. Strain the contents of the shaker over cherry and serve immediately.

Equipment and Ingredient Information
Herbs and spices are available online at Mountain Rose Herbs or at Lhasa Karnak Herb Company in Berkeley. Glass dropper bottles can be found at Mountain Rose Herbs and The Container Store.

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Category: Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, christmas recipes, cocktails and spirits, DIY, foraging, urban homesteading, holiday recipes, holidays and traditions

About the Author ()

Kate Williams grew up outside of Atlanta, where twenty-pound baskets of peaches were an end-of-summer tradition. After spending time in Boston developing recipes for America's Test Kitchen and pretending to be a New Englander, she moved to sunny Berkeley. Here she works as a personal chef and food writer, covering topics ranging from taco trucks to modernist cookbooks. In addition to KQED's Bay Area Bites, Kate's work appears on Serious Eats, Berkeleyside NOSH, The Oxford American, America's Test Kitchen cookbooks, and Food52.
  • Elaina Archer

    Love this, thank you for posting!