Inspired by the deadliest poisons in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, these homemade cocktail bitters are easy to make and will add a new dimension to your cocktail game.
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Poisons of the Seven Kingdoms
The Seven Kingdoms are a dangerous place, so it’s no surprise that there are a myriad of poisons to choose from. I’ve taken inspiration from three of the most evocative of these fictional poisons – Sweetsleep, Basilisk’s Blood, and Manticore Venom – and turned them into cocktail bitters you can easily make at home (with no actual dangerous ingredients).
Entertain your guests with these fun takes on fictional poisons and experiment with all sorts of cocktails at your upcoming premiere party. Have no doubt, these Game of Thrones cocktail bitters will get you some serious nerd cred from both fans of the show and cocktail aficionados alike.Jump to Recipe
Homemade Cocktail Bitters
Making your own homemade bitters is a little time consuming, but incredibly easy. If you’ve ever made infused vodka or vanilla extract, the principles are practically the same. For a full rundown on the basics, this article is incredibly helpful if you’d like a little more info than I provide below.
What are Cocktail Bitters?
Think of bitters to cocktails as salt is to stew. Not only do bitters add their own inherent flavor, they can also bring out certain tastes and aspects of the finished cocktail that may otherwise remain hidden or subdued to the taste buds. This is due to the reaction the human body has to bitters flavors, which the body automatically reacts to as a possible poison. Most poisonous plants have a bitter flavor, and our bodies are predisposed to react to those flavors as a means of warning.
Historically, cocktail bitters were a kind of patent medicine, used by doctors to cure everything from stomach disorders to fever. Some of these remedies may have had some validity – some people swear by the digestive aid of certain bitters mixed with club soda – while others were, in the terminology of the time, hogwash and snake oil.
Today, the term ”bitters” is much broader, covering any alcoholic preparation infused with botanical matter that is used as a flavoring extract in various cocktails. Traditional bitters contain some kind of “bittering agent” – a bitter herb or root – in their (often proprietary) recipe, but modern bitters sometimes break those rules. Nevertheless, most cocktail bitters have a bitter or bittersweet flavor, opening up the tastebuds and enhancing the cocktail experience.
Find bulk herbs and other botanicals at your local health food store or online through merchants like Mountain Rose Herbs.
Tinctures vs. Bitters
For the preparations below, the first step is to make a number of tinctures, which you then mix together to make your bitters. A tincture is an infusion of a single botanical type with a high proof (150+ proof) neutral grain spirit. Once the tinctures are fully infused (ie, left to sit for a period of time), the individual types can be combined.
Some recipes out there will have you skip this step and infused all of your botanicals at once, but I like the adaptability this two-part method provides. Not only do some botanicals infuse more quickly than others, this method allows the maker to adjust the final recipe to their taste, adding more or less of any one ingredient as they like.
Storing Cocktail Bitters
Once the botanicals have been strained from the neutral spirit, tinctures can be stored indefinitely due to the high proof of the alcohol. Bitters can usually be stored indefinitely in opaque bottles as well, depending on the exact ingredients. The recipes below have a bit of sugar in them, but most bitters can last up to five years if stored in a cool, dark place. I recommend amber dropper bottles for storage.
Poisons in The Game of Thrones
Turning poisons into cocktail bitters seemed a good transition: both are created with botanical and natural ingredients; both get added in dashes and drops to your drinks; and both should always come in pretty little bottles. Historically, bitters were used as a type of medicine, and many poisons are used the same way in small, measured amounts. These three poison-inspired bitters will certainly get people talking as they sip their delicious cocktails.
Sweetsleep – Hibiscus Vanilla Bitters
One of the most featured poisons in the world of Game of Thrones is Sweetsleep. It’s described as the gentlest yet most dangerous of poisons in the Seven Kingdoms. While a couple grains are used to calm the nerves or aid with sleep, a few pinches of the sweet powder causes death.
In this cocktail bitters version of Sweetsleep, I use vanilla for sweetness and hibiscus for tartness. Lemongrass and gentian root provide the herbal, grassy notes I suspect a poison made from plants like this might have. The resulting mixture is light, refreshing, and subtle – perfect for slipping into a sweet cocktail on a summer afternoon.
Basilisk’s Blood – Savory Coffee Anise Bitters
Basilisk’s Blood causes madness in whoever consumes it. Because it is said to give a savory flavor to meat, I was inspired by some of my favorite seasonings for a good steak: Rich coffee and anise. Combined with bittering agents sarsaparilla and black walnut leaf, these cocktail bitters would be perfect in a warm, spirit forward cocktail like an old fashioned or bitter negroni.
Manticore Venom – Spicy & Warm Bitters
Manticore Venom is one of the more gruesome poisons, and a favorite of alchemists and assassins throughout the Seven Kingdoms. Scorpion-like in appearance, manticore are imported from the tropical islands east of Qarth and kept specifically due to their lethal nature. The venom is most famously used by Oberyn Martel as a coating on his blades, and while he lost his fight with The Mountain, is believed to be the cause of the large man’s lingering wounds.
Because of this connection with the tropics and to Dorne, I decided to give Manticore Venom bitters an extra “sting” with a dose of Grains of Paradise. Along with cinnamon, clove, and allspice, it’s a warm, spicy concoction perfect with fruity and tropical drinks.
Poisons of the Seven Kingdoms: Cocktail Bitters Inspired by Game of Thrones
Basic Bitter Ingredients:
- 1 tablespoon each bittering agent (such as black walnut leaf, gentian, or sarasparilla)
- 1 tablespoon each herb or spice (such as cinnamon, clove, or anise)
- 1 tablespoon each of any other ingredients (such as hibiscus leaf, lemongrass, or coffee bean)
- 1 large bottle of neutral spirit, 150+ proof (vodka or Everclear)
Rich Sugar Syrup:
- 2 cup cane or turbinado sugar
- 1 cup water
- Half pint jars with lids and rings
- Coffee filters
- 4- ounce amber vials with droppers
First, make tinctures from your bittering agents, herbs and spices:
- Spoon a tablespoon of each ingredient into its own half pint jar, and top with a cup of neutral spirit. Seal with a lid and band, and let sit in a cool dark place until the tincture (or extract) is fully infused.
- The amount of time this may take will vary, but in principle fresh or dried herbs will take less time than less permeable substances, like cocoa nibs or coffee beans. In my experience, the ingredients I’ve listed above take anywhere from two days (black walnut leaf, dried hibiscus) to one week (wild cherry bark, gentian, cinnamon). Cocoa Nibs and coffee took longest, and were left for nearly 2 weeks.
- When the scent of the ingredient to be infused overpowers the scent of the alcohol, you know the tincture is ready. Using a coffee filter, strain the solids out of the liquids, and transfer the tincture into amber bottles. Once the solids are removed, these tinctures will last up to a year or more.
Next, make the cocktail bitters:
- Using a pipette or dropper, mix up the bitters in amber vials as described below. Feel free to adjust or change the ingredients to your own taste. Enjoy in various cocktails!
5 parts vanilla extract
4 parts lemongrass
2 parts each hibiscus & lime zest extract
1 part gentian root
1 part rich simple syrup Basilisk’s Blood (Warm & Savory)
3 part coffee extract
2 part sarsaparilla
1 part each black walnut leaf & anise
1 part rich simple syrup Manticore Venom (Sweet & Spicy)
2 part each cinnamon, wild cherry bark, grains of paradise, & gentian root
1 part each clove & allspice
1 part rich simple syrup
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