Craft bitters spice up Toronto’s cocktail scene

Bitters, those spiced and flavoured digestifs, have regained their place as an essential bar ingredient, with unique craft versions adding a twist to the cocktail scene.

Once limited to a bottle of Angostura’s, set aside like neglected Tabasco sauce, cocktail bitters have regained their place as an essential bar ingredient. The renaissance can be tasted locally in an explosion of craft bitters and homemade concoctions offered in Toronto’s cocktail scene.

“Bitters are the salt and pepper of cocktails,” says Jeff Carroll, manager of the County General on Queen St. W. The simple dashes of bark, citrus zest and alcohol bring balance to mean spirits, round out their edges, or spice them up a kick.

A variety of craft bitters have also made their way into shops like BYOB on Queen St. W. and The Mercantile on Roncesvalles Ave.

Do it yourself or off the shelf

• Want to try making your own bitters? Brad Thomas Parsons’ book Bitters: A Spirited History of the Classic Cure-all (Ten Speed Press, 2011) includes various recipes, from lime, coffee-pecan, to cherry-hazelnut bitters. “It’s really not as difficult as you think,” says Carroll, who recently had friends over to make a few batches. But if you’re thinking of bottling bitters for the holidays, time is of the essence: “The ingredients need to infuse for at least two weeks.”

• Toronto Temperance Society’s Oliver Stern suggests five ready-made bitter fixes for your home bar: 1. Angostura Aromatic Bitters (most grocery stores, $7-$10) 2. Angostura Orange Bitters (BYOB, 972 Queen St W., $21.95) 3. Peychaud’s Bitters (BYOB, 972 Queen St. W., $18.99) 4. Scrappy’s Cardamom (The Mercantile, 297 Roncesvalles Ave., $22.95) 5. Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters (BYOB, 972 Queen St. W, $26)

For years, Angostura’s and Fee Brothers’ various offerings were the only options. With the craft market still in relative infancy, it’s open season on experimentation, says Kristen Voisey of BYOB. Pointing to flavours like Bitter End’s Jamaican Jerk Bitters or Scrappy’s Lavender, she says “there still aren’t any rules for what you can and can’t mix. You’d think celery bitters would be restricted to a Caesar, but it’s mixed with gin. I’ve had rhubarb and bourbon or gin, you name it.”

Oliver Stern, who manages the members-only Toronto Temperance Society on College St., says certain things shouldn’t be mixed. “It depends what you’re making,” he says. With an Old Fashioned — the classic cocktail which calls for a balance of bourbon or other spirit, sugars, bitters and ice — Stern says it’s fine to experiment with different ingredients, “but it’s not going to make a better Old Fashioned.” Far from being a purist, however, Temperance Society’s menu offers various infused spirits and syrups, but Stern only uses brand bitters. “I happen to really like Angostura’s,” he adds.

Most cocktail recipes call for three dashes, and just like adding too much salt to a dish, it’s easy to overdo it. “That extra dash can ruin it,” says Voisey. “Sometimes I want to taste a lot of it but it just throws the whole drink off balance.”

Carroll, however, often overdoes it and loves the results. “The more bitter, the better,” he says. This week, he introduced the Bitter Bourbon Fizz, which calls for a half ounce of Angostura’s.

A Georgia native who moved to Toronto nearly a decade ago, Carroll looks at bartending from a chef’s perspective: “It’s very important to treat it the same way as a kitchen, so we use fresh fruits, herbs and spices.” Making his own lime cordial and crème de violet, he adds that “not only are some of these ingredients hard to find but the quality is sometimes lacking. And the homemade stuff sometimes tastes better.”

The County General’s bitter concoctions include cherry-vanilla, apple-cinnamon-bourbon, and cherry-masala-chai, the latter included in a Manhattan.

When making his bitters, Carroll prefers bourbons and rums as a base because some of the offerings at the LCBO tend to be higher in alcohol, 45 to 50 per cent, which helps their infusion process and over-all shelf life. “Just find a few key ingredients. There are many different things to add for flavouring, barks and very potent spices like anise and cardamom.”

Carroll would love to sell his bottled cure-alls, but for the time being, they are only available by the dash. “There’s a lot of red tape to go through. If I could just make bitters all day, I’d be very very happy.”

This article was originally published by the Toronto Star on December 24, 2012. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

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