My first experience with bitters involved Simon, a Canadian business associate of my parents. After installing a piece of equipment, we took him to dinner, where he proceeded to order club soda and bitters. I tasted it… disgusting!
Since then, I’ve operated on the impression that bitters are… well… bitter! And that I should avoid drinks with them at all costs. When I met Bill and Lillian Buitenhuys last year, they told me they were making bitters. My mind immediately jumped to the scary bitters drink that Simon threw back. Not good.
A vial each of AZ Bitters Lab’s Más Mole and Figgy Pudding somehow made their way to my kitchen. One whiff of those bitters and all my senses perked up. What are these warm, spice-infused liquids that make my mouth water? What are bitters?
Bitters are similar to an extract, such as vanilla, almond, etc. They are high-proof alcohol that is infused or distilled with herbs, barks, roots and/or fruit. They were first used in the 1800s as a medicinal cure for seasickness and stomach maladies. Sailors would take the bitters, but due to their unpleasant bitter taste, they would mix their “medicine” into their rum. Now considered digestifs, rather than medicines, the artisan cocktail resurgence has helped to create an explosion of new creative bitters. It’s also a very secretive business, partly because each type of bitters requires a unique process to make it. But the basics are simple…
“It’s an infusion,” Bill enlightens. “So you take a bunch of stuff, throw it in a vat, put in liquor and you infuse it. Some people do it all in one bucket. Some people do different parts and blend them together. Some people will take all the dregs out of the first batch and make a tea out of it, and then use that to dilute it down.”
Bill and Lillian began their journey to bitters through their love of fine wine. Dining out, as well as cooking at home, in Boston, they became well-versed at pairing food and wine. Once they moved to Phoenix, they became intrigued by bitters and switched their pattern up a little; they began to switch out wine and instead enjoyed handcrafted cocktails paired with their meals.
“We’d sit at the bar. Our food would come out, and Richie [Moe, of Citizen Public House] would say, ‘I can make something to go with that,’” Bill says. “He’d come up with these creations and he’d pull out these little bottles. Tobacco-infused something-or-other, or lavender he-just-got-in. The flavors would all meld together with the food. It was phenomenal. So we started talking more and more to Richie about what he was doing. We thought, well… we can try it at home. We like to eat. Let’s come up with flavors we like to go with foods we want to eat.”
Slowly, the Buitenhuyses started to experiment with their own bitters-making at home. Taking their housemade experiments to local bartender friends for guidance, they began to refine and define the flavors that would become their first two commercial bitters.
“We would experiment and then bring them to Valley bartenders we knew, and they’d give us their feedback. ‘Instead of cocoa powder, use cocoa nibs.’ We kept getting tips. Kept refining and refining. For Figgy and Mole we went through eight to ten trial versions. We brought them in and they’d say, ‘Oh, this is good!’ and then they started using them. It gave us more confidence in what we were doing.”
How does one use bitters? And what do they do to your cocktail, exactly?
Bill explains the comparison in that bitters are similar to the salt a chef uses to enhance a dish. “People say bitters are like the salt and pepper of cocktails, that they taste flat without them. You don’t want them to be too obtrusive. You don’t want them to take over the cocktail, but you want to give to it… like salt would give to food.”
While sitting down for a cocktail comparison with the Buitenhuyses, I tasted a cocktail with bitters and one without. With each mixture, I found that the cocktail with bitters had greater depth. They extended the flavor of the cocktail, enhancing the beautiful spirits that were expertly included.
The passion that the Buitenhuyses have for bitters, and the subsequently enhanced cocktails that are produced, vibrates through their world, encompassing their friends’ home bars and the greater local craft cocktail community.
Now that their bitters are available online, as well as a few select stores, what’s next for AZ Bitters Lab? Short-term plans involve introducing a new flavor: Orange Sunshine. Long-term plans include working on licensing from the federal government so that they can sell their bitters across state lines.
Here’s my advice: Enhance your cocktails. Add a flavor band to your next cocktail party. Buy some AZ Bitters Lab bitters.
AZ Bitters Lab can be found online, for shipment in the state of Arizona, at AZBittersLab.com. Locally, you can pick some up at The Urban Table at JAM in Old Town Scottsdale, and Wedge and Bottle in Ahwatukee.
To taste their bitters in a cocktail, visit Pig & Pickle, Last Drop at Lon’s, Citizen Public House, Bar Crudo, Mabel’s on Main and Calistro Bistro.
Article by Rachel Miller
Originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Arizona Vines & Wines.