Hot Stuff: How to make Hellfire Bitters

For the longest time, I thought Hellfire Bitters were just an urban myth.

I’d see them listed on the occasional bar menu – but when I asked to try some at my favorite bar, the bartender just scratched his head. “Let me know if you find some,” he said. “They sound great.”  As a peace offering, he mixed me a drink made with clove-scented Angostura bitters.

I asked Seattle-based mixologist Kathy Casey, who was a finalist in the 2009 Tales of the Cocktail bitters competition. (She steeped her bitters with bark and pine needles from her own Douglas Fir tree!) She hadn’t heard of Hellfire Bitters either, but gave me pointers on “bittering agents” such as gentian and chinchona bark.

And then, a wise cocktailian friend whispered in my ear:  “Hellfire bitters are something one makes, not something one buys.”

A few more well-meaning whispers later, and I was staring online at the cover of a 1939 book, “Gentlemen’s Companion,” by Charles Baker Jr., and I had the recipe. Apparently, San Francisco-based cocktail maven Erik Ellestad has cleverly adapted a recipe for Hellfire Bitters from this very book.   He jokingly refers to them as “Weaponized Bitters of Mass Destruction.”

This morning, I made a batch of Hellfire Bitters. I’m pleased to have solved the mystery. And especially, I’m pleased to share the recipe (and photos)  here with you, so you can make them too– since obviously, you can’t buy them.  Check back in 2 weeks – I’ll let you know how the bitters turned out, and will try them out in a cocktail!

Hellfire Bitters

Adapted by Erik Ellestad from “Gentlemen’s Companion” by Charles Baker Jr.


2 cups very hot chiles, such as such as Thai birds-eye chiles

2 Tablespoons molasses

2 cups vodka  (preferably 100 proof)

2 limes, quartered

½ tsp Cinchona Bark Powder (Quinine bark powder)*    (note – I subbed in Gentian, another bittering agent)

16 allspice berries, crushed 

Combine all ingredients and blend briefly in a blender. Place in a sterile jar for two weeks, shaking intermittently.  Strain through cheesecloth to remove solids and sediment, and decant into a small bottle. 

*Note: quinine can be poisonous in large doses, so resist the urge to add larger amounts to your bitters.

Raw ingredients. The little bowl contains allspice berries.

I used a meat mallet to crush the allspice berries.

Everything gets dumped into the Cuisinart. Photo before blending...

...and after blending. Isn't this attractive? The white dots are tiny chile pepper seeds.

Next step: strain through cheesecloth. Between the molasses and allspice, the liquid smelled like gingerbread.

Decanted to closed container, labeled, and refrigerated. See you in two weeks, bitters!


10 thoughts on “Hot Stuff: How to make Hellfire Bitters

  1. Too funny! In retrospect, I think I would make one small tweak to the recipe instructions: rather than just tossing the lime wedges into the blender, I’d recommend giving each a quick squeeze and then tossing in the hulls. I’m skeptical about how much lime juice actually made it into the bitters.

    • I’m guessing that the lime oils from the zest is the key here.

      I made some a while back, but for all that effort and expense, heat is delivered just as well by Tobasco or other hot sauce.

  2. Not to be a weenis, but I noticed that the recipe calls for straining *after* the two weeks is up — did you choose to strain beforehand because chilies infuse so quickly? It’s just that without any solids in your mix, there’s nothing for the vodka to keep pulling flavor from. Either way, great recipe!

    • Zach, when I was a kid, my parents gave me a tiny sign for my desk that said: “when all else fails, follow directions.” Maybe I should get a new one for my kitchen — because shoot, you’re right. Straining should have been later on.

      But…I’ve made infusions with chile peppers before, and frankly two hours with a single, relatively mild jalapeno pepper tends to be quite spicy, thank you. I can only imagine that steeping a full 2 weeks with a full 2 cups of blazing-hot Thai chiles would be beyond tolerable!

      At this point I’ll have to wait and see what happens. At worst, I’ve made gingerbread bitters. That actually sounds rather nice…

      Zach – your site says you make bitters. Tell us more about that!

      • I only recently started using chilies in my infusions, so firstly, thank you for the wealth of information on this site.

        I think you’re absolutely right about the 2-week steeping producing something unbearable, and I bet that those fresh Thai chilies/seeds released a lot of their oil when they took a spin in the food processor anyway. I can’t wait to hear how they turn out.

        As to the bitters, I’ve experimented some over the past year and am in the process of turning my amateur tinkering into professional tinkering. I have a few batches going, but the one that uses chile peppers is a Thai-inspired number with sweet/savory notes. I left a single dried bird’s eye pepper in a base of 1.5L of grain alcohol and, perhaps because dried peppers have less capsaicin, it has a nice bite to it but nothing too overbearing.

        So far nothing’s available to taste, but when I’ve launched, and my site is up and running I’ll be sure to let you know. Cheers!

  3. Pingback: Hellfire Bitters part 2, or, “when all else fails, follow directions” « Spice & Ice, and more…

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