Homemade Orange Bitters

Bitters are used in a number of cocktails. Even if you can’t strongly perceive them while you’re sipping your drink, like salt, lemon zest, and vanilla, bitters are used to balance the flavors in the glass, providing a gentle undernote to bolster or as a contrast to flavors, rather than domineering or taking center stage.

When writing Drinking French* I kept in mind that most people either didn’t have access to a wide variety of bitters, or didn’t want to amass a line-up of little bottles of bitters at home just to make one cocktail. Although sometimes, a certain bitter does make a difference. So a few times, I nudged readers who might want to expand their flavor horizons towards a particular bitter, such as eucalyptus or salted chocolate. But in the overall picture, I like to give choices when writing a recipe in a book, so as many people ca make it as possible.

My fallback bitters are orange and aromatic (Angostura) because I wanted to make sure to use ones that people could easily find. Heck, I’ve even seen Angostura being sold in French supermarkets, as well as at Target stores in the U.S. So there’s really not that much of a barrier to getting your hands on a bottle.

But orange bitters are easy to make. You just need four oranges, some liquor, and a few spices. When infusing flavors, the higher the percentage of alcohol in the base, the more extraction you’ll get from the ingredients that are used for the base.

In France, there are eaux-de-vie, vodkas, and overproof rums, and in the U.S., depending on where you live, you can even get grain alcohol, which is excellent but the bottle carries a flammable warning – and it’s not available in every state. So I went with a light amber rum that was 43% alcohol for this one. The brand isn’t so important as you’re only using a small amount of it in a drink.

Gentian root may sound as elusive to you as eye-of-newt, but it provides a husky bitterness to a number of French apéritifs and liqueurs and is nice to add to the mix, too. You can find dried gentian root at a local herb shop, or online here and here. I’ve made it optional (because I want you to be able to make this), but if you do use it, make sure you get gentian root (above), not powder.

Not to complicate things, but I had some extra caramel on hand and found out a small amount of the browned sugar balances the bitters and gives them a bit of sexy richness. You don’t need to do that either (add the caramel), but I’ve given instructions on how to make it (the caramel, not the sex) after the recipe.

Homemade orange bitters make wonderful host gifts if you have friends who like to shake or stir up their own cocktails. Bottle them up in eyedropper bottles and hand them out upon arrival. Maybe it’ll encourage them to mix you up something good to drink.

Orange Bitters
Print Recipe
2 cups (500ml)
You can use vodka or whiskey, if you prefer, in lieu of the rum. Note that the higher the proof (ABV), the better the extraction of flavors, so feel free to use any of those spirits with a higher alcohol level. I made the gentian root optional but it adds a husky bitterness that I find really makes the bitters, better. You can find it at herbalists, natural foods stores, or online at Penn Herb, Mountain Rose Herbs, and Etsy. You can also play around with the spices. A bit of cinnamon, a few cloves, or perhaps a bit of star anise could be added. Be sure to filter the mixture through a coffee filter, rather than cheesecloth, which will insure that you won't have little bits of spices in the finished bitters, which will make it cloudy.
4 large oranges, preferably unsprayed
2 cups (500ml) rum, vodka, or another liquor (see headnote)
12 coriander seeds
6 allspice berries
12 fennel or anise seeds
3 cardamom pods, gently crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried gentian root (not powder), optional
1 tablespoon caramel, optional (see note at end of recipe)
1. Preheat the oven to 200ºF (93ºC). Remove the zest of the oranges using a vegetable peeler, and spread them on a baking sheet. Dry in the oven for about 50 to 60 minutes, stirring them once or twice during drying. They don't need to be bone-dry when done, but should have lost most of their moisture and smell orangey.
2. Pour the liquor into a clean medium jar. Add the orange peels and spices. Cover and shake. Let the jar stand in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks, shaking it once daily.
3. Strain the mixture through a coffee filter. Stir in the caramel, if using, then bottle.

To make caramel: Heat 1/2 cup (100g) of sugar with 1/4 cup (60ml) water in a skillet with a few drops of lemon juice. Cook, stirring only if necessary, until the mixture turns a deep amber color. Remove from heat and add 2 tablespoons of water. (Careful as it may steam and sputter.) Stir until smooth. If necessary, set the pan back over low heat to help dissolve any lumps of caramel. For details on caramelizing, check out my post: How to make the perfect caramel. This will yield a little more caramel than you need, but extra will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks and you can use it to drizzle over ice cream or oatmeal.

Storage: Bitters will keep for at least a year if stored in a cool, dark place.

Note: Bitters bottles, like the one shown, are available on Amazon, Bar Products and at Cocktail Kingdom.


*Drinking French will be out March 3rd, 2020, which I’m really excited about! I spent the last two years working on the book, crisscrossing France researching, writing…and drinking.  The book features 160 recipes for the iconic beverages of France, from Paris café specialties like Salted Butter Caramel Hot Chocolate, Chocolate Frappés, herbal tisanes, and freshly-made lemonades, to icy apéritifs, homemade infusions (liqueurs and fruit drinks), as well as classic to contemporary cocktails from my favorite bars in Paris, to a chapter of snacks to go alongside. There are also stories about some of my favorite liquors and distillers in France, and I hope you enjoy reading the book as much I did writing it.

If you make these orange bitters, you’ll be ready to go when the book arrives. And if you pre-order Drinking French now, you’ll be the first to get a copy! You can do so at your local independent bookseller, including Book Larder, White Whale, Kitchen Arts and Letters, Omnivore, Powell’s, Now Serving, Strand, and RJ Julia, as well as online at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Indie Bound, and Book Depository, which offers free international shipping.


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29 comments

  • Juanita
    December 19, 2019 1:02pm

    Where can I find a suitable little bottle to store the bitters and dispense them in tiny amounts?

    • Anne
      December 23, 2019 7:08am

      Besides the sources David Notes at the bottom of the article, you can also get them from KegWorks.com or BehindTheBar.com.

    • jane
      December 24, 2019 11:29pm

      I was so excited by the link, thinking it would get me to the same charming dropper bottle in the photo but alas, no such luck…Still super cute to see the photo of a bottle that cute!

      David any idea if that vintage bottle is actually made for bitters or is it part of a salad cruet set? I’ll look around at online vintage sites.

      • December 25, 2019 10:02am
        David Lebovitz

        The bottle I have isn’t vintage. Not sure where to find vintage ones but vintage cocktail items command a premium these days as many people are looking for them. I might try sites like Etsy or Ebay, although I think Cocktail Kingdom (linked in the post) may sell vintage items, too. Good luck with the search!

    • Anne
      January 11, 2020 2:01pm

      Ktsupply.com

  • Margaret
    December 19, 2019 1:50pm

    Is there a story behind the perfect cruet you show with the bitters? I’m heading out to scour the resale shops here for some later today because what excellent hostess gifts those will make when my bitters are perfected, along with your new book!

    • December 25, 2019 10:02am
      David Lebovitz

      Check my response to the comment just above : ) ^^

  • Donna
    December 19, 2019 2:01pm

    Can you tell us the name of some drinks which include orange bitters? Thank you

  • Jesse Livermore
    December 19, 2019 2:59pm

    3 drops of orange bitters is mandatory in the martinis I make at home.

  • Jennifer
    December 19, 2019 3:35pm

    My husband got me an ice cream maker and The Perfect Scoop for our anniversary in August, and I got pregnant in October. Now he’s on the keto diet and I can’t drink, but I’m STILL going to get this book for when I can again!

  • December 19, 2019 3:52pm
    David Lebovitz

    Juanita, Donna and Margaret: That’s a bitters bottle. I went ahead and linked to a few sources where to get one after the recipe. If you live near a restaurant supply store, they may have them as well in the barware section.

    Jennifer: A lot of recipes in the book don’t have alcohol, which includes the café drinks, and some of the others. While liquor (and cocktails and apéritifs) are featured, there are a number of things you can make & enjoy while pregnant – hope you like the book! : )

  • Kimberly
    December 19, 2019 6:58pm

    wow..i thought this would be more complicated. It’s like making homemade vanilla extract.

  • Mary
    December 19, 2019 10:18pm

    Does the cardamom have to be green pods, or could you use the brown/black ones? Those tend to be a little smokier in flavor…

  • Lise
    December 19, 2019 11:00pm

    I highly suggest organic oranges since you’ll be soaking the peel and ingesting the results. Just a note…

    • December 22, 2019 7:43am
      David Lebovitz

      I usually suggest “unsprayed” citrus, but was frequently asked what that meant. (Some say “organic” but some growers don’t me they don’t or can’t use that term because there are a lot of hoops to jump through, and costs, to use it, so they prefer to say “unsprayed.”) However I’ve had many inquiries about what “unsprayed” meant, which I think is sort of self-explanatory, but isn’t. So I didn’t say it here but prefer that people use either unsprayed or organic fruit, however I know it’s not always available to people. But that’s what I use.

  • Linda U
    December 20, 2019 12:02am

    Oh, David, what a lovely bottle in the photo!!! I’ve pre-ordered your book, which means, of course, I’m obliged to visit France again and see what I can find at the marches de puces!! .

    • December 20, 2019 10:30am
      David Lebovitz

      I hate to tell you, but I cleared all the flea markets out of any and all vintage glassware the last few years…although perhaps by the time of your next visit, they’ll have restocked ;)

  • Naomi D.
    December 20, 2019 4:25am

    Once again, a great recipe! Thank you for the time and effort you put in your blog and books (despite it being one of the more pleasurable areas of toil). Your blog and books have added much to my enjoyment of life for years. Glad you’re in the world.

    • December 20, 2019 10:32am
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks so much! It was fun to do a book on a different subject, but one that I found so compelling. The drinking culture is such a special and integral part of France, that it was a pleasure to explore everything on the subject. Hope you like it, too : )

  • Susan Riggs
    December 20, 2019 12:44pm

    I never would have know to make my on bitters. It just didn’t occur to me, nor did I think it could be so easily done. Thank you for the idea, the recipe and the inspiration. Can not wait for your new book.

  • Melissa
    December 20, 2019 7:26pm

    Have you used Seville or Chinotto oranges to make this recipe? I have a tree full of Seville oranges and wondered if it would be too bitter.

    • December 22, 2019 7:44am
      David Lebovitz

      I haven’t because the seasons don’t normally collide (I’ve not seen Chinotto oranges in Paris, either) but you could certainly use them if you prefer, I’d imagine, although I haven’t tried them. If you do, let us know the results!

  • Eden
    December 20, 2019 8:02pm

    David, many thanks for another wonderful recipe. I’m heading into the kitchen for a weekend of baking and your recipes are front and center: gingersnaps (using candied ginger I made from your fantastic recipe) and the spiced glazed nuts and pretzel mix.

    I’m so grateful for your blog. Wishing you a happy, healthy 2020.

    • December 22, 2019 7:44am
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks! Those spiced glazed nuts and pretzels are one of my favorite recipes, too – glad you’re enjoying them : )

  • Jessica
    December 20, 2019 11:43pm

    This is SO exciting!!!

    Do you have preferences for the type of orange?

  • bob roethemeyer
    December 21, 2019 12:58am

    Hi David,
    I joy reading your blog…and books!Huge Francophile here… travel to Paris every other year. I own a vintage home accessories/ specialty shop. I would be interested in carrying this new book in my shop. Do you have a US distributor I could contact when at market in January? If this is not the appropriate venue for this question please delete this message and let me know via email if you could. Many thanks!

    • December 22, 2019 7:40am
      David Lebovitz

      I’m not sure how bookstores and venues obtain books, but there’s a contact form on my publisher’s page to get ordering information here.

  • Pam
    December 21, 2019 1:56am

    Ooo, just pre-ordered, should arrive in time for my birthday!

  • December 21, 2019 11:43pm

    How lovely to travel across France on a drinking discovery expedition? I surely would have volunteered as an assistant or maybe an assistant to the assistant. Happy to see the recipe and have another idea to share with friends. I have a large fruit tree that is loaded with tiny orange “cuties”. They are a bit too sour as of yet but the peel should be prefect for bitters. Happy Holidays and many blessings to you and yours.