Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sugar cubes infused with angostura bitters and orange (aka the instant old fashioned)

I've been contemplating this project for over a year and I finally got around to it over the holidays (and then made a couple more batches for quality control before writing this post). An old fashioned is one of my favorite cocktails, when it's done well (FYI - my current favorite in LA is from Melrose Umbrella Company). In the simplest form it consists of just bourbon, bitters and sugar, although personally I like a strong note of orange in mine so I always add that in.

At home I've played around with various methods and my best version involves an orange infused simple syrup, but that only lasts for a few weeks in the fridge and there are times where I don't feel like pulling out a saucepan just to make a cocktail.

Also, sugar cubes are cute and easily portable (read: camping, flights).

sugar cubes with orange and bitters

I looked pretty extensively online and found a couple of different methods for making your own sugar cubes, but I wanted a way to incorporate that orange flavor that I love. I was originally thinking about buying some orange essence oil and then it suddenly occurred to me that, duh, I am surrounded by fresh oranges this time of year and I should just go straight to the source. So the process starts with making a variation on an oleo saccharum, which is just a fancy way of saying that you're pulling all the delicious oil out of citrus peels. A traditional oleo saccharum has a very high peel to sugar ratio and you basically end up with liquid. I didn't want to go quite that far, so I upped the sugar ratio. After letting the sugar and citrus sit for 24 hours I pull out the peels and add in bitters to taste. The amount of bitters you need will vary widely depending on how sweet your oranges were, so you do have to taste. The first batch I made using oranges from my favorite farmer's market vendor, but they weren't super sweet and I ended up needing very little bitters at the end. The next two batches I made using navel oranges from my parents' tree and those were so sweet that I needed double the amount of bitters. Sorry - I know it's nicer if a recipe can tell you exactly how much of everything to add, but fruit just varies too much. I recommend tasting tiny bites of the sugar mixture as you add in the bitters, and when you think you have it perfect you should mix up a quick old fashioned using the sugar. If it's too bitter, add in a bit more sugar. If it's not bitter enough, keep going. Warning - make scaled down cocktails for tasting and keep in mind that unless your alcohol tolerance is sky high, you won't be able to fine tune it much at this point.

sugar cubes with orange and bitters

I wanted to be able to package them for friends, so I designed a label that would fit inside an Altoids tin because we had those lying around. I washed the tins multiple times with soap so that the peppermint scent was completely gone. If you want to do the same, the printable PDF with the labels is right here (pretty sure this goes without saying, but personal use only, please!). If you don't have a crazy Altoid addiction like us, these blank tins look to be the right size.
Sugar cubes infused with angostura bitters and orange (makes two trays full of tightly packed cubes, plus a bit left over) I use these trays and I love them - each tray makes 81 cubes, so you get 162 cubes per batch, enough for 50 - 80 drinks 
2 cups superfine sugar (I just quickly blitz regular sugar in my food processor)
4 oranges, peeled (you are just using the peels)
Angostura bitters, to taste (somewhere in the range of 15 - 30 dashes) 
Combine the orange peels with the sugar in a non-reactive bowl (glass or enamel, NOT metal) and allow to sit for about 24 hours.  
The next day the sugar should be fairly damp. Pull out the orange peels (it is really tempting to snack on them as you do this, but WAIT - if you snack on orange peels you will totally blow out your taste buds and make the next step harder).  
Start adding bitters. I'd start with 10 dashes, take a tiny taste and see if the flavor is coming through. You're also getting bitter flavor from the orange peels themselves, so a lot depends on your fruit. For early season farmer's market oranges, I used 12 dashes of bitters. For peak season homegrown oranges I needed 25 dashes. If you overshoot, you can add a bit more sugar. 
Once the sugar is adjusted to your taste you start pressing it into the trays. I work on a large sheet of parchment paper and just dump sugar all over the tray, press it in using a wedge shaped offset spatula, and then scoop up the extra that spilled on the parchment and pack that on top. I want these cubes to be as perfectly shaped as possible, so after I fill the whole tray I go back and use the base of a chopstick to tamp each cube down, then add a bit more sugar, then tamp it down again. It's a little fussy, but the whole process still doesn't take more than 15 minutes. 
Allow to dry thoroughly. We had a damp winter, so I actually left the trays in my oven for a couple days so that the pilot light could help speed up the drying process. If you do this I'd recommend putting a huge note on the front of the oven door to remind yourself to pull the trays out before turning on the oven. Speaking from personal experience here. 
Once they're fully dry you just pop them out of the trays and package them up. Store them in a dry, dark place, since they'll lose color more quickly if exposed to light. 
You can use them in an old fashioned (instructions on the printable labels) or just drop one in the bottom of a champagne flute for a quick and pretty cocktail.

You could easily play with this method and make different flavor combinations. I'm thinking of doing a grapefruit and rosemary version for summer cocktails but the possibilities are endless, really.

making the oleo sacchrum
{oleo saccharum in progress}


  1. You always have THE best homemade gift ideas, your friends must LOVE you! (I'm sure they would love you without all the fun food and drink concoctions, but I bet it doesn't hurt). These would make perfect bachelor or bachelorette favors, or favors for any celebration, really. Now I just need to gather a bunch of altoid tins..

    1. So sweet of you to say! And that reminds me that I should have looked for an option that would work for people who don't go through Altoids so quickly that they have to purchase them at Costo (no joke - I'm not sure what our issue is, but we apparently eat them like candy).

      Added it to the post but these tins look like the right size. It would add cost to the project, though, so it might be cheaper to just buy Altoids unless you really prefer the look of the blank box.

  2. Ooh... I love this. Thanks for documenting and sharing! My wheels are turning already. I wonder if this would work with mint for a quick springtime mint julep.

  3. Assuming you could use Young Living Essential Oil in Orange. Their Vitality line of oils can be ingested and the orange oil comes from the rind only. Any guess as to number of drops needed?

    1. Sorry, but I don't have any idea what the potency of the essential oil is, so I'm not sure how much you would need! If you have it on hand you could experiment with it. For me, it was cheaper/easier to go directly to the source and extract oils from the rind using the sugar, since I had easy access to organic oranges.

  4. This is the MOST genius idea ever. I am picturing all of my Christmas gifts now - custom made tins for all of the aunties and grannies I have who I never know what to buy for. This will make their Christmas. Can't believe I never thought of this before. Thanks so much for sharing. Have you ever used the sugar cubes tray for everything else? Full disclose: I have so many different trays and ice cube size trays my boyfriend judges me every time I bring a new one home that's for a specific use.

    1. I haven't used the trays for anything else yet! The cubes are pretty small (about half a teaspoon per cube). It would make nice "crushed" ice for summer drinks, although it'd take a while to get a full bag!

      Other people commented about using them for candy (but they would be very small candies!) or baby food (ditto - not sure why you wouldn't just use a larger tray).

      They might be a one trick pony, sadly. I was okay buying them because I was using them for gifts and they are small so they take up very little room.


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