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BITTER BOUNTY

Add aroma and flavor to cocktails and more.

WRITTEN BY ANN LINDEMANN
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO
ILLUSTRATION BY BAMBI EDLUND

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Burdock root, milk thistle seed, and wormwood herb. When Janel Johnson ticks off her favorite ingredients, an unsuspecting listener might conclude that they’re for a magic potion lifted straight from the pages of a dark Grimms’ fairytale. Instead, these exotic herbs are found in bitters, a concoction which has a long history of curing ailments and flavoring drinks ... but never casting spells.

“I’ve always been a do-it-yourselfer, and a few years ago I thought it would be fun to make my own bitters for cocktails,” the Carson City resident recalls. “But I didn’t have much luck finding milk thistle seed and burdock root in the supermarket down the road, and I had to order them online in huge quantities. For instance, I had to order a pound of an herb, and I only needed a teaspoon for the recipe!”

Johnson’s conundrum promptly turned into a business opportunity. She reasoned that other DIYers were probably facing similar ingredient-hunting challenges, and she created a simple bitters kit. Featuring the “weirdest” herbs, Johnson launched a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, and High Desert Botanicals was born. She assembles bitters kits in a Carson City warehouse for the online business.

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Whether it’s for grapefruit ginger bitters or celery bitters, the process is similar.

“The basic process isn’t complex at all: Concentrated flavor extracts are created by soaking or steeping various herbs and spices in water or high-proof alcohol such as vodka,” Johnson says.

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These bitters are nothing like what’s in that dusty brown bottle that you remember from your parents’ liquor cabinet. Rather, Johnson’s favorites include grapefruit ginger bitters — light and refreshing, good with silver tequila and citrus — and celery seed bitters — great in Bloody Marys and sarsaparilla — adds a sweet, spicy note to whiskeys.

“Tasting as you go is important for achieving the right flavor,” she says.

Since the bitters are strong, the best way to taste is to add a few drops to a shot glass filled with club soda.

For a wide array of bitters kits, as well as a downloadable bitters-making primer featuring many interesting recipes, visit http://www.highdesertbotanicals.com

Frequent edible Reno-Tahoe contributor Ann Lindemann looks forward to creating her first batch of grapefruit ginger bitters.

Here are two of Johnson’s favorite bitters recipes:

Grapefruit Ginger Bitters

(Makes about 8 ounces)

Combine in glass jar:

1 cup 100-proof vodka

Zest and pulp from one grapefruit

Zest from one lemon

2-inch piece of fresh ginger, chopped

½ teaspoon dried lavender flowers

2 cardamom pods

3 dried juniper berries

1 fresh sage leaf

½ teaspoon whole coriander seeds

½ teaspoon gentian root

½ teaspoon quassia chips

Steep 10 to 12 days, strain, and filter.

Add:

2 ounces simple syrup or 1 tablespoon agave syrup

Sarsaparilla Bitters

(Makes about 8 ounces)

Combine in glass jar:

1 cup vodka

1 teaspoon sassafras root bark

2 teaspoons sarsaparilla root bark

1 teaspoon wintergreen leaf

½ teaspoon licorice root

1 whole star anise

1 teaspoon crushed ginger

1 sprig spearmint

2 teaspoons mild molasses

¼ vanilla bean

Steep 10 to 12 days, strain, and filter.

Add:

2 ounces simple syrup, or 1 tablespoon agave syrup, or 1 ounce Grade B maple syrup.

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