Episode 104 - Bespoke Bitters

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome back to episode 104 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!

We’ll be back with another epic interview next week, but this episode dedicated to a really cool new bitters project that’s just hitting the shelves.

A Tale of Two Bitters

This is a tale of two bitters (and interestingly, two rye whiskies) – but to really understand that story, you need to know a little bit about the distillers and products who approached us to make them in the first place.

One of our very first retail partners – almost half a decade ago – was Catoctin Creek Distilling Co., based out of beautiful Purcellville, Virginia. They were one of the first craft distilleries in the region, and when tasting room manager Denise Petty and brand rep John Shope asked me to work with them to develop a bitters flavor to pair with their award winning Roundstone Rye, to say I was excited would be a vast understatement.

I rolled into their tasting room on a weekday several months ago, and we all sat down at their horseshoe-shaped bar, nosing and happily tasting that Roundstone Rye, looking for inspiration. But we all realized that the first major hurdle we had to confront was:

How do you build a bitters flavor to accentuate or pay tribute to one particular product? Not an entire category of spirits or a type of cocktail – but one bottle with a unique fingerprint all its own.

Now, I’m sure there’s multiple answers to this question, but because my background is in psychology and creative writing, my solution was to build a flavor by telling a story.

Telling a Story with Flavor

When I interviewed John and Denise about what Roundstone Rye is all about – the answer, in large part, turned out to be: Virginia. Being situated in one of the most beautiful parts of the Virginia countryside, the people who make and sell this beautiful liquid can’t help but be inspired by the sights, smells, and flavors all around them.

So I quizzed them – and we came up with three quintessential Virginia flavors that we really wanted to highlight:

  • ·The first was chicory, which is a flowering member of the dandelion family. We used the root of this plant, which has been used for centuries as a tea or coffee substitute, to provide a savory, slightly bitter backbone for the bitters. Because of the other ingredients in the mix, which I’ll cover in a second, we opted against the roasted variety – which can be fairly intense. Instead, the role that chicory root plays in this product is very similar to the role that many gin distillers say orris root plays in their spirits. It’s a binder, giving a pleasant earthy canvas upon which the other botanicals can dance.

  • Next, we entered the world of aroma and nostalgia with the addition of honeysuckle flowers. These long, fluted orange blossoms are heavy with sweetness and evoke warm summer nights sitting on the porch watching fireflies flick on and off in the yard. The aroma of honeysuckle and the flavor are pretty close – and it’s hard to describe, but once you encounter it in the world, it’s a highly perfumed sensation you’ll never forget.

  • ·Finally, as an homage to Virginia, we selected the regal rose, featuring its dried buds and petals in our Roundstone bitters formulation. Although the flowering dogwood is the state flower – and features prominently in the Roundstone logo on the front of the bitters label – The Virginia Rose is a common flower that grows wild in the woods across the region, so we thought it would be fitting to give it a nod in our recipe.

(L-R) Chicory, Honeysuckle, Rose Buds

(L-R) Chicory, Honeysuckle, Rose Buds

Now, unfortunately, three botanicals does not a bitters make. So although this was a great start, we now needed to decide how we’d ultimately round out the formulation to make it really jive with the Roundstone rye. Because when you think of rye, you don’t really think of pairing with exclusively floral ingredients, so something else needed to come into the fold.

Now, one thing I really love about Roundstone Rye is that it was the rye that turned me onto rye. I was a baby in the world of spirits when I first tried it, and to be honest, I was bracing myself for something dark, spicy, and feisty. Instead, I was greeted with a spirit that was round, affable, and almost fruity, which says a lot about master distiller Becky Harris’s fermentation and distillation methods.

So thinking about this flavor profile and thinking about the most iconic use case for rye – the Manhattan – we decided we needed to get some citrus notes involved in the form of orange, bitter orange, and grapefruit.

After several test batches and in-depth tasting and pairing sessions, where we gradually pipetted the bitters into the rye with more or less dilution, and with the addition of a few other key botanicals, we finally arrived at what we were looking for:

A cocktail bitters with enough bright citrus to make a gorgeous Manhattan, with plenty of quintessentially Virginian ingredients, and most importantly, something completely unique and completely integrated into the story of the Roundstone Rye.

This is where most collaboration projects fall short, and it’s also where a lot of at-home consumers don’t have the resources to commit to ingredient sourcing, concept development, and iteration. That’s why you get a lot of great fruit, vegetable, and berry-driven bitters coming out of the home garden, herb garden, or fruit tree, but these tend to be extremely seasonal and hard to replicate.

So if you’re a home bitters maker, I hope these Roundstone bitters inspire you to go down all the rabbit holes and really think about the greater story that your creations tell through their flavor profiles.

But we’re not done here, not by a long shot. Next up, we’ve got a very different rye whiskey, with a completely unique story and a different set of challenges when it came to developing a custom bitters flavor to accompany it.

Sagamore Spirit Aromatic Bitters

Now, anybody who’s spent any time at the University of Maryland, College Park knows that the big, bad alum everybody loves to talk about is Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour. So as a UMD alum, imagine my excitement when I was contacted by visitor services manager Nick Meeks to put together a bitters flavor that would thrill the visitors rolling through Kevin Plank’s new whiskey distillery, Sagamore Spirit.

This gorgeous, state-of-the-art distillery opened its doors in early 2017, and as you would expect from a project with Under Armour backing, they’ve been racking up medals and accolades like crazy.

I remember touring the facility with Modern Bar Cart Co-Founder Ethan Hall shortly after it opened, and just being blown away by how polished, how large, and how sophisticated it was in its early days of operation. Everything is highly curated and has that Kentucky bourbon palace feel to it – except it sits feet from massive ships bobbing imperceptibly in Baltimore Harbor. From the huge, gleaming fermenters and stills, to the chocolate and rye pairings during the tasting portion of the tour, to the tricked out gift shop, this place is a whiskey nerd’s fantasy.

So was I a little nervous when I sat down with Nick to try our first test batches of bitters? Yes, but that didn’t stop us from creating something really special.

Visualizing Flavor

Now, let me get a little weird here. I’m going to talk about flavor in a way that’s kinda strange, because it’s spatial. I’m trying to make a shape out of flavor – to visualize it so I can understand it better.

Sometimes, when I sense something is wrong with a situation, I’ll say – “things aren’t touching,” meaning that there’s a gap where there shouldn’t be one. This can be a logical gap, like when someone’s making an argument that doesn’t quite add up. It can be a sequential gap, like when a process or workflow isn’t operating the way it should. Or it can indeed be a flavor gap, where something is missing in a flavor profile.

Now, when Nick and I sat down with Sagamore Spirit’s rye whiskey and tasted and nosed through it, the obvious job at hand was to create something that “paired” with that rye. But what does that really mean?

In the wine world, they say that pairing wine with food is either a game of sames or a game of opposites. You either want to find common flavor notes between the wine and the food, or you want them to be drastically different so that you can appreciate how they play off of one another.

So, I went off and kinda did that. I made a cocktail bitters that had a lot of spicy, warm, round notes like a rye whiskey, and then I also made one that was kinda vegetal and funky. As you might expect, neither of these test batches hit the mark. One was too same-same, and the other was just a bit too far off in left field.

So again, it was time for a bit of storytelling to bring things together.

Sagamore Spirit is part of the continued tradition of Sagamore Farms, formerly owned by the Vanderbilt Family, and known for its champion line of thoroughbred racing horses. The farm sits atop a natural limestone aquifer, and water is trucked in from the farm to proof down the whiskey.

So knowing this, I began to think about horses, water, and why I seemed to be able to lead my bitters project to water, but couldn’t make it drinkable.

Then I had two thoughts:

The first, was that I needed to find a middle ground between a flavor profile that matched the rye whiskey, and one that was too different and obscure.

And the second was that I needed to incorporate this rich horseracing tradition – and the story of Sagamore Farms – into the picture.

Red Clover

Red Clover

So in my subsequent test batches, I focused in on a few key rye whiskey flavor notes – like cinnamon and clove, and then building around them a constellation of other friendly, but spicy flavors, like black pepper, citrus, and ginger. Then I thought, what do horses eat – and I remembered back to the pastures near where I grew up, and the answer leapt out at me: red clover.

So into the flavor profile of baking spice, pepper, ginger, and citrus I worked in red clover, and then to round out the project, I stole a few plays from the Sagamore Spirit playbook. To proof down these bitters, we use the very same spring water used to proof down the whiskey, and we also finish them off with some of their fresh barrel char, which is a delicious biproduct of the whiskey making process.

Now, in the past, we’ve considered barrel-aged bitters, but it’s never really been feasible from a cash-flow perspective, so I was really thrilled to be able to grab some char straight from the distillery and marry with all the other flavors in these bespoke bitters.

Whereas the Roundstone Bitters we created for Catoctin Creek were bright and citrusy, the Sagamore Spirit bitters are definitely more in the aromatic realm, with lovely base notes, great complexity, a little sweetness from the red clover, and a strong backbone that stands up to even the most robust rye whiskies.

Featured Cocktail: The Trinidad Sour

This episode’s featured cocktail is the Trinidad Sour, which is unique in the cocktail world for its epic use of bitters, which, if you couldn’t tell from the title, are the star of this episode.

Before I give you the recipe, let me preface it by saying that this is – once again – a cocktail where there’s HEAVY disagreement on the first page of Google search results. Washington Post author Carrie Allan offers a recipe containing as much as three ounces of Angostura bitters – which is crazy – and most other sources weigh in at about an ounce or an ounce and a half, which seems more reasonable.

Now the cool thing about the Trinidad sour is that it basically follows your traditional sour cocktail formula. It contains sweet, sour, and boozy components – but then we also have the heavy bitterness thrown into the mix. So we’re pulling four of the primary taste levers (the only one being excluded is “salty”), so when you see one of those tastes being tuned up or down (let’s just say sourness, for example), then the sweet, boozy, and bitter ingredients need to also be adjusted to compensate and achieve balance.

This is how I explain the abundance of recipes out there – but after I give you the one from my favorite and most trusted source here – Imbibe.com – I’m going to explain how you can tweak it to fit your own personal tastes.

According to the Imbibemagazine.com recipe, which claims to be using the original, unaltered recipe, to make the Trinidad Sour Cocktail, you’ll need:

·       1 oz. Angostura bitters

·       1 oz. orgeat (which is a spiced almond syrup)

·       ¾ oz. fresh lemon juice

·       ½ oz. rye whiskey

Combine all these ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake well for about 15-20 seconds, and then strain into a coupe glass. The result, is a burgundy or tawny colored libation that’s sweet, tangy, complex, and pleasantly bitter.

And with that, let’s sip happily on our favorite new bitters-bomb cocktail and take a look at two new flavors of bespoke bitters that we developed specifically for a couple of our awesome distiller partners here in the Mid-Atlantic.