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!