Mixologist Damon Boelte first saw the tall pear tree behind Frankies Spuntino in 2008 when the Carroll Gardens restaurant’s owners, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli (known collectively as the Franks), hired him as a cocktail consultant.
“The first string of meetings, it was summertime and we were sitting in the backyard talking about what we would do,” recalls Boelte. “I looked over and saw the tree, and said, ‘Oh, cool-pears! Let’s do that!’ “
By “that,” he meant: make bitters. By the time the Franks opened the bar at Prime Meats, two doors down from Frankies, Boelte had cooked up custom pear bitters made from the fruit of that inspirational tree. His take on the Old-Fashioned forsook the bottled Angostura bitters for which that classic cocktail calls, and instead featured his handcrafted backyard bitters.
“I do the so-called ‘garbage’-style Old-Fashioneds, with muddled orange and cherry,” explains Boelte, a lean, easygoing Oklahoma native with thick, dark glasses, “but I really liked the way the pear worked with the rye.” So did customers: His iteration of the libation proved an early favorite at the perennially packed Court Street watering hole.
An 1806 article in an upstate newspaper, often cited as the first printed definition of the cocktail, described the beverage as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirit, sugar, water and bitters.” Those first three need no introduction. More mysterious are the intensely flavored, sparingly used, magic elixirs known as bitters. Everyone’s heard of at least one-Angostura, the concoction made in Trinidad for 186 years, is an essential ingredient in the Manhattan and other favorites. But these days DIY drinkers are rediscovering the potent potions, and what happens when a tiny, dark drop of the stuff kisses your liquor.
Simply deconstructed, bitters are made by infusing alcohol—typically neutral spirit—with various botanicals, and then letting the result age. Ingredients can include citrus, herbs and spices, and “bittering agents” such as gentian and tree barks like cassia or angostura. (Curiously, Angostura bitters do not contain angostura bark. The product got its name because it was first produced in the town of Angostura.)
Solo, they taste vaguely medicinal-indeed, many of the original bitters were portioned out as health restorers. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, bitters were as essential to a functioning bar as a jigger. But as the art of cocktail making declined in the 1960s and 1970s, once-famous bitters makers (Stoughton, Boker’s, Hostetter’s) died one by one until only a couple—Angostura and the New Orleans-born Sazerac essential, Peychaud’s—were left standing.
Then came the cocktail renaissance of the last decade. The demand for defunct bitters to recreate classic libations, as well as a drive to devise new drinks, has resulted in a bitters boom. Longstanding professionals like the Rochester-based Fee Brothers expanded production, while newbies like Germany’s the Bitter Truth flooded the market with a sea of little bottles. But home enthusiasts got cracking as well. And Brooklyn—where citizens are known to churn their own butter and cure their own bacon—began to build better bitters, too.
The kitchen window of Louis Smeby’s top-floor South Slope apartment gets great eastern exposure. The sun finds a clear path over the nearby, low-slung roofs. On a recent morning, just inside the window sat a tray of thin slices of kaffir limes drying in the sunlight. They’d been there for five days, following a spell in the oven, and Smeby plans to use them in an upcoming bitters experiment. Current experiments can be found steeping in large glass jars throughout his home, giving the one-bedroom the air of a laboratory. A tall wine refrigerator and a shelving unit groan with liquor bottles. Near the door sits a pile of mail parcels. Some, addressed to Smeby, contain ingredients sent from across the nation and overseas. Others are addressed to bars and individuals who have ordered bottles of his finished product.
Smeby, who was born in Minnesota and learned the restaurant biz through stints in Paris, Alsace and New York—e is currently a waiter at the Modern—takes a decidedly hands-on approach to alcohol. He learned beer by working at Sixpoint and soon began brewing his own. To understand bourbon, he bought 30 or 40 bottles and tasted his way through them. Soon he was making his own cordials, too. “Bitters just happened to be something that I hadn’t taken on,” he recalls, while pouring single-malt scotch over a custom-curated potpourri of dried orange zest, camomile flowers, coriander, gentian, whole cloves and cassia bark for a batch of his Highland Heather bitters.
Over the past year, he’s cooked up 60 batches and created about 20 flavors. Two years ago, the beverage director at the Modern began using them in some of the restaurant’s cocktails. But Smeby’s big break came in early 2009, when he slipped a few bottles to drinks deity Jim Meehan of PDT fame; before you could say “Skol!” the elixirs found their way into cocktail shakers at Gotham Bar & Grill, the Vanderbilt, Buttermilk Channel, Quarter bar and White Star, among others. They’re also available online sold in 2-ounce bottles for $10 under the business name of A. B. Smeby Bittering Company. (A. B. is Louis’s grandfather, a hearty cocktail drinker know as “Big Al.”) Smeby ships as many as 70 bottles a month to places as far flung as Los Angeles; Eugene, Oregon; Denmark; the Netherlands and Germany. He hopes to make the bitters available in specialty stores soon.
It’s a safe guess that some of Smeby’s flavor combinations—licorice-nectarine, cherry vanilla, lemon verbena, rose hibiscus and black-and-white bitters, which taste like New York’s iconic black-and-white cookies—have never been attempted before. “I love the idea of putting eclectic flavors together that really work,” he says. “You see chefs doing it all the time. To do it in liquid is a little more interesting.”
Smeby sources nectarines from a nearby farm and verbena from Long Island, cranberries from Wisconsin, and clementines from a West Coast orchard. Sometimes he takes a quick trip to Sunset Park, where Mexican vendors carry chamomile flowers, hibiscus, Puebla-made chocolate and the raw cinnamon known as cassia.
Matt Madden, who lives in Sunset Park, knows those vendors well. “In this neighborhood, all the grocery stores have a lot of Mexican and Caribbean products,” he says, “typically the sour oranges that you need to make orange bitters.” Madden is not a bartender or even a member of the food industry; he’s a cartoonist. But he loves bitters. “They’re one of that class of modifying ingredients that makes a cocktail. It’s that little extra touch of something that makes the drink special.”
Orange bitters are an obvious starting point for the home enthusiast. Once one of the most common types available (historians think the original Martini, circa 1880s, featured orange bitters), the category was virtually extinct by the end of the 20th century. Newly available brands of orange bitters like those from Fee’s, Regan’s and Angostura’s were not available when Madden began cooking up infusions in his kitchen five years ago-in fact he could hardly find information online.
“When I first started making orange bitters, I did a lot of researching before I found a version of an old Jerry Thomas recipe.” (Thomas, a 19th-century bartender who published the first known guide to mixology, is revered in cocktail circles.) Madden’s tastes lean toward classics like the Sazerac, Martini and Rob Roy, but found his homemade bitters also came in handy when his wife was pregnant. “That’s a great way to teetotal-put a little bitters in seltzer.”
Madden has since expanded his repertoire to include crème de cassis liqueur using black currants that grow in his backyard, and, last year, inspired by the Chinese goods on nearby Eighth Avenue, he created a five-spice bitters, based on the traditional Chinese flavor combination. His particular quintet included star anise, fresh ginger, clove, cinnamon and Szechuan pepper, which he soaked in grain alcohol for three weeks before straining.
Think bitters with Szechuan pepper sounds a bit out there? That’s nothing. When it comes to home bitters these days, anything goes. When Clif Travers, a bartender at Bar Celona in Williamsburg, wanted something with an intense bite, he concocted a rum-and-tequila-based bitters infused with jalapeño and habanero peppers; today he’s working on a bourbon-based cherry bitters. Mark Buettler, who worked at the Dressler in Williamsburg and lives in Bushwick, made a Sriracha bitters based on his own homemade version of the cult-favorite hot sauce. And Toby Cecchini, a well-known mixologist and cocktail journalist who lives in Cobble Hill, recently made the acquaintance of the pomelo, a large, sweet citrus native to Southeast Asia, when he witnessed two women excitedly fondling the huge orbs at a Court Street grocer. “I bought five of them without any idea what to do with them,” he says. Soon, he decided they were ripe for bittering.
And perhaps no other place in America could produce not one but two Buddha’s hand bitters. Buddha’s hand is a bizarre citron variety that looks like a yellow, waxen squid. Both Boetle and Smeby were inspired by the unlikely fruit. Boelte first encountered it at Fairway, when working at LeNell’s, the since-shuttered liquor shop that once brought drinks enthusiasts from far and wide to Red Hook. “I thought ‘This was one of the weirdest, coolest things ever…. I’d always liked my Manhattans with a twist. So I always used a lemon bitters or orange bitters.” He now uses his Buddha’s hand bitters in Prime Meats’ house Manhattan.
Both Smeby and Boetle favor seasonal ingredients, so keeping some bitters in stock is not always easy. The window to secure Buddha’s hands from California is only three or four weeks long. “I ordered five cases to start,” says Boelte. “It’s a hell of a process making that. You have to peel all those tentacles to get the skin off in between. It was me, another bartender and one of the owners of Frankies upstairs, everyone with cases of Buddha’s hand, peeling, and saying ‘Hurry, put it in vodka!'”
Drawn to Drinks: Cartoonist Matt Madden cooks sour oranges into orange bitters, which historians think were essential to the original martini in the 1880s.
Borough’s Beloved Bitter Boys: Like Boelte, Smeby favors seasonal ingredients. His Slope-made bitters star in cocktail shakers at The Vanderbilt, Buttermilk Channel, and Quarter Bar, among others, and he ships bottles to discerning drinkers from Los Angeles to Denmark.
These potent potions are key to classic cocktails, but today’s flavor combinations— from licorice-nectarine to Sriracha—are decidedly modern.
Editor’s note: White Star, Bar Celona and Dressler have closed.