DIY Vermouth & Bitters Recipe

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Photo by Tory McTernan

DIY Vermouth

It turns out that we botanical growers are primed to make vermouth, too. Just like juniper is an essential ingredient for gin, you need wormwood to make vermouth. In fact, it’s illegal to call a spirit vermouth if it doesn’t include wormwood. Other than that, the sky’s the limit when it comes to flavouring this spirit. One maker of craft vermouth boasts 20 botanicals.

Before you can start to flavour vermouth, you need to prepare a collection of tinctures. Once they’re ready, you’re ready for the off. Pour a bottle of white wine into a saucepan, add 200g (7oz) caster sugar and heat until the sugar dissolves. (Alternatively, replace the caster sugar with homemade caramel for a deeper, darker flavour.) Remove from the heat and let it cool. Once the liquid has cooled down, begin adding your chosen tinctures – use a pipette and go slowly, adding one drop of individual flavour at a time, tasting and recording quantities as you go.

DIY Bitters

I was excited to discover I could make my own bitters. It requires a combination of bitter and aromatic herbs as well as some exotic spices (most of which are difficult or near-impossible to grow in the UK), so you may need to play a bit fast and loose with a combination of homegrown herbs and shop-bought spices if you really get into making bitters. However, simple recipes can be created using ingredients you can harvest from your own backyard.


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Bittering agents include angelica, liquorice root and wormwood. You can complement these bitters with aromatics and spices like caraway, cardamom, chamomile, chilli, citrus peel, coriander seeds, fennel, juniper berries, hibiscus, lavender, lemongrass, mint, rose, rosemary, sage and thyme. As a general rule, you’re aiming to create a blend with about 20–50 per cent bitters with herbs and spices to round out the flavour.

To create your own recipe, combine individual tinctures of herbs and spices. To taste your concoction, add a few drops of your bitters to still or sparkling water. The concentrate should be very bitter.

Origins of Spirits

It may surprise you to discover that aperitifs like gin, vermouth and absinthe were originally intended as medicinal drinks. Botanicals chosen to soothe upset stomachs and chest infections (gin) or to help digestion (vermouth and absinthe) were steeped in wine and drunk by men, women and children alike. Over time, the recipes were tweaked, the base alcohol evolved and the world’s penchant for spirits firmly took hold… but that’s a story for a different book.

Tipple Tip

You can flavour any base spirit, though white ones are often best, so try rum, vodka and gin. Brandy and whiskeys are more complex and it’s harder to create a balanced, palatable drink, though it’s still very much worth having a go.


A tincture is a concentrated herbal extract that is made by infusing fresh or dried flowers, leaves, roots, bark or berries in a high-proof alcohol (otherwise known as vodka). Steeping herbs in alcohol before consuming them can help our bodies obtain the beneficial compounds found in herbs, many of which our digestive system can’t extract when we simply eat the fresh herbs. Heat also does the trick most of the time (think herbal teas) but using a tincture is a good alternative to have up our sleeve.


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Tinctures are left to infuse for much longer than you would steep a herbal tea, which means that you don’t need to consume very much to get the same benefit – a drop or two as opposed to a cup (or more) of tea.

To make a tincture, gather together a collection of sterilized airtight jars – you’ll need as many jars as you have varieties of herbs. The quantity of herbs you use to make a tincture will vary depending on which part of the plant you’re using and whether they’re fresh or dried.

For fresh leaves and flowers: fill two-thirds of a jar with chopped or ground fresh leaves or flowers.

For dried herbs: fill half a jar with finely chopped dried herbs.

For dried roots, barks and berries: fill one-third of a jar with finely chopped dried roots, barks or berries.

Fill the rest of the jar with vodka. Label the jars and let infuse in a cool dark place for 6–8 weeks, shaking the jars daily. When you’re happy with the flavour, strain through muslin, squeezing out every last drop of liquid to ensure you’ve got all the herb compound. Transfer to amber bottles and store in the refrigerator. The tinctures should keep for up to one year. You can use the tinctures neat, diluted in tea or soft drinks, or you can use them to flavour alcohol and cocktails.

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Cover courtesy of Kyle Books

Excerpted with permission from Grow Your Own Botanicals by Cinead McTernan (Kyle Books, 2019).

Inspiration for edible alchemy.