By Abby Langer, Foodable Contributor
Artisanal bitters are a hot trend now and Jeff Carroll of Carroll and Company is one of Toronto’s newest artisanal bitters makers. For Jeff, the road to being an artisanal bitter maker was a natural transition. Jeff has been in the restaurant business for about ten years. Around seven years ago when he really started getting interested in different types of cocktails, Jeff trained with Chad Solomon at the Fairmont Royal York. This is where Jeff began his appreciation of what bitters can add to a drink.
At that time, only Angostura was widely available. Made from rum, spiced with all sorts of herbs and spices including Angostura bark, Angostura bitters have been made in Trinidad and Tobago for 300 years.
A Bitter History
Bitters began as ‘tonics,’ believed to be a cure as an over the counter medicinal drug for upset stomach and/or the immune system. They became popular during prohibition because they weren’t considered alcohol, but in reality, like today’s bitters, they were 40-45% alcohol. Bitters began flying off the shelves as a replacement for the alcohol that was banned and this practice was one of the ways people got around illegal alcohol. The majority of companies selling alcohol during prohibition stopped after prohibition and started selling rye and rum.
The modern interest in bitters really began to heat up in the past 10-15 years. Around 2001, a new cocktail era of sorts began; in the 80s and 90s vodka was huge, people didn’t want to taste their alcohol. Drinks were sweet (for example, the Cosmopolitan!). This changed in the new millennium, when people really began to appreciate spirits such as rye, bourbon, and rum in their purer forms.
A 14-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Jeff began working at the restaurant Loire in Toronto in 2008, where he managed the bar and made a new cocktail list every two weeks. Nothing was available in Toronto at the time in terms of bitters, so he contacted Joe Fee from Fee Brothers in Rochester, and imported their bitters solely to share with friends and test them in cocktails.
Jeff always felt that the process of making bitters was somewhat mysterious– but once he got started, he learned that they were easier to make than he thought. To figure out his method, he read a lot about bitters and spent a lot of time in herb stores learning about ingredients. But before he started making bitters, Jeff tried to improve on several standard bar ingredients. He has been making his own grenadine using a liter of pomegranate juice and a liter of sugar, as well as his own alcohol infusions. He also has his ‘bloody mix’, which is a liquid spice mix for Caesars and bloody Marys. This mix aims to replace all the ingredients that are in those drinks, but it can also be used in cooking. It’s a fabulous marinade for steaks. This mix makes it faster for bars to make drinks with a more consistent, tastier result. Jeff also makes tonic syrup to use in classic gin and tonics. Hating the taste of canned tonic, which he feels is too bitter and dry. So Jeff devised a recipe using cinchona bark, which he gets at a health food store.
How They are Made
To make his bitters, Jeff likes to play with different combinations of flavors instead of single flavors. This is how he got the flavors for his current line of bitters: Lemon Ginger Gin, Cherry Vanilla, Cherry Masala Chai, Blueberry, Dark, Aromatic, and Root Beer Rum.
There are two different ways to extract flavors for bitters; one uses heat, the other uses alcohol. The higher the alcohol percentage, the faster it will extract flavors. One of the most difficult ways to make bitters is to infuse each ingredient on its own and then blend them together, which is time consuming and expensive. Jeff chooses to blend his ingredients together in a jar, fill it with 40% alcohol, and let the alcohol do its work.
Once Jeff has all of his ingredients in the jar, all he does is tip the jar over once a day to ensure that the ingredients blend. Figuring out the exact ingredient ratios to get the flavor he wants takes a lot of trial and error, but it’s worth it. Jeff’s bitters infuse for two weeks before they’re ready to use.
He starts with basic ingredients that he knows he wants to use. For example, with spices– he puts everything out on his table and decides what would work well together. He ends up putting everything in the jar that he thinks he needs and just smells the mixture – then will make adjustments according to his nose!
Every one of Jeff’s recipes has been altered at least 100 times. Every ingredient in a bitter infuses at a different rate, making things more complicated. Some flavors are more potent than others for example– cinnamon, cardamom, and clove. Sometimes bitters makers add certain ingredients at different times into the jar, but Jeff has every ingredient in his final recipes measured by weight so he doesn’t have to use that method. In terms of labeling, there are some regulations that Jeff must adhere to by naming country of origin, volume, water content, company name, and ingredients all on the label.
Another method that some bitters makers use is to make a bouquet garni for each ingredient. That way, when the maker is finished with an ingredient, it, they can simply pull it out of the jar. Using this method, ingredients can be pulled out at different times to create the exact flavor that the maker wants.
As a cocktail aficionado, Jeff’s favorite drinks are negronis and manhattans. He believes the perfectly balanced cocktail is sweet, sour, and bitter. A perfect example would be bitter bourbon fizz, which is made with egg white, lime juice, cinnamon infused bourbon, grenadine, 1/2oz Angostura, and ginger beer. Always ready to experiment, Jeff has also tried to make his own cola and root beer, which gave birth to his root beer bitters!