Bitters are often underrated and undervalued, but they are very much the work horse of any cocktail bar.
Often paralleled with seasonings such as salt and pepper in cooking, bitters often add that perfect accent to the drinks in which they are included.
Canadian bitters company, The Bittered Sling, have recently released their bitters in a gift pack with 30ml bottles of each of their six bitters.
To discuss flavours, terroir, and all things bitters, but of course especially what cocktails they should be used in, we’re here with one of The Bittered Sling’s founders and cocktailian extraordinary, Lauren Mote.
Bitters are often underrated and undervalued, but they are very much the work horse of any cocktail bar. Often paralleled with seasonings such as salt and pepper in cooking, bitters often add that perfect accent to the drinks in which they are included.
Canadian bitters company, The Bittered Sling, have recently released their bitters in a gift pack with 30-mL bottles of each of their six bitters. To discuss flavors, terroir, and all things bitters, but of course especially what cocktails they should be used in, we're here with Bittered Sling founder and cocktailian extraordinary, Lauren Mote.
Thanks for joining us, Lauren.
Hello. Thank you for having me.
Now, you've been a bartender for 20 years, what made you think to start developing bitters?
Well, being in a market like Canada where I'm from, it's important to look to what products are actually available, but it's also important to look at what's not available. And Bittered Sling was born out of that necessity of making cocktails in a classic way, in the same way as our American brothers and sisters to the south.
And in Canada, we only had one or two flavours available to us. And in order to have ultimate creativity when creating cocktails, we needed more. And Bittered Sling was born from that idea.
You describe your bitters as being almost a bridge between the culinary and the cocktail. What exactly do you mean by that?
Well, when you look at the origin story of bitters and you look at the fact that they were developed as related to the medicinal world or the holistic world over the last few thousand years, it's relatable to the food world because in the food world, the extracts that we use in baking, let's say like vanilla extract, were used to provide flavour to otherwise ingredients that were a little bit difficult to come together.
So we always use the example in the cooking world of North American white flour, white sugar and butter, which on their own are quite white tasting. They don't really have any flavour, but the moment we add vanilla extract, all of a sudden, the flavour of each of those ingredients comes together. And bitters is used in the same way in the cocktail world. And I guess the quite obvious reason why we use that bridge is well beyond just the culinary concept, is that Bittered Sling is developed by a chef and a bartender. It's my husband Jonathan, a business partner, is also a chef.
Now you guys haven't taken the normal route of releasing aromatic bitters and orange bitters, but instead you've opted for some more unusual flavour combinations. Why did you decide to do that?
I think it's important for us that when we are launching a brand and launching a product that it is something that reflects our personality and reflects the way that we see flavours. And for Jonathan and I, so I've been bartending this year in 2019 for 20 years, but Jonathan has been cooking now for over 25 years. And he's worked and lived all over the world. Now as it might be quite easy to say, "Let's make an aromatic bitters," but a standard aromatic bitters already exists and already does the job, which is Angostura. A standard orange bitters already exists and does the job, which is Regan's Orange Bitters.
So it doesn't really make sense for us to create something that competes as a mirror flavour profile to those items. What makes the most sense is taking the prowess and expertise as a bartender and as a chef and creating a new bitters and a new combination of flavours, I guess, born from the idea of what cocktails it would be matched to.
So for example, aromatic bitters is really just a style of bitters rather than a flavour. So by adding bittering agents to all of our bitters, in actual fact, all of them become aromatic in style. They could stand up to oak-matured spirits as well as be really well highlighted in white spirits or light drinks. And consequently on the same side we have the orange bitters, which represents a category of citrus bitters, which helps to push flavours forward in a lot of different cocktails. So rather than just staying with the standard orange bitters because they already exist, doing something that is Orange & Juniper, highlighting flavours that exist within the orange peels as an example.
I mean, these are all studies in what a peel tastes like. Our Grapefruit & Hops is a study in what a grapefruit peel tastes like. Lem-Marrakech is taking the lemon on a roasted Moroccan spice journey of Marrakech. So they all have several ingredients and all of them are designed to take, I guess, what a basic concept of an orange or an aromatic bitters or chocolate bitters or coffee bitters, and flip it on its head and offer ultimate creativity with something very, very dynamic in the bottle.
What is your process when you're creating these flavours? Are you looking at the cocktails first or are you looking at flavours and then working out how they can be used?
To be honest, it's ... I go back to the culinary world all the time because I think when new sauces are developed and when new extracts are developed, and new vinegars are developed, I don't think that people develop them with a final dish in mind. And I think that can be quite dangerous to do so. I think that making things in a specific style will make it much easier for you to be quite versatile in how you use them at the end of the day. But I think if we limit ourselves just to a final dish or a cocktail in mind, then I think we really miss out on focusing on really the flavour of the botanicals.
So we go the other side. Jonathan and I have often sat at different ends of the table and let's say we're talking about grapefruit, and we'll have grapefruit peel, we'll have the inside of grapefruit, we will have a grapefruit tea that is made from hot water. We will have a grapefruit tincture made from neutral grain spirit and then ... And we'll have those flavours lined up. And we independently, we monitor the colour, we nose the product, and then we write down tasting notes based on what does grapefruit smell or taste like to me? Which is quite personal.
If you were to describe to somebody that was impaired, sensory impaired in some way, what a grapefruit tastes like or what it smells like, you can't say, "Well, it just tastes and smells like grapefruit." So Bittered Sling, the bitters are designed to explain almost like what the tasting note of grapefruit is within a bitter's recipe.
So the ingredients that are used in there are based on the tasting notes that both Jonathan and I had gathered while we were doing these tastings. And then we trial and error, we blend the recipes together, what both of us thought of and thought how we could take grapefruit in a different direction. And then at the end of the day, ultimately it meets the cocktails that make the most sense.
Now do you want to run through what each of the six bitters are, for us?
Sure. And you have the the six pack, which is great, but I understand that some of your audience is in the United States as well. And in the US and Canada, we actually offer 12 flavours, which is pretty cool. So we have two gift packs. The black one that you have is called our Global Flavours gift pack. And we have two citrus bitters, Grapefruit & Hops, which I mentioned, and Lem-Marrakech, which is the roasted Moroccan lemon bitters, both of which are aromatic bitters, so they can be used in any application with oak-matured spirits or white spirits.
We have two, what we call nostalgic flavours. They are flavours that transport us to a time and place of something in mind in Jonathan's travels. The first one is called Moondog Latin, which is an expression that was sort of born out of a creative story of how would we retell the story of Mexican flavours and ingredients without automatically putting chilies?
I think for most people around the world, they think Mexican food, and they think chilies right away. But in actual fact, there are some really beautiful ingredients that grow in Mexico that needed to be highlighted, and so that's what Moondog is. We use Mexican oregano, epazote, smoked black peppercorns, aromatic chilies rather than spicy chilies. So there's a bit of bite on the palate with Moondog, and that comes from peppercorns. We use cascabel and guajillo chilies as a way to express the flavour profile of chilies without using spicy high Scoville unit chilies.
So there's lots of other ingredients in there. Most of our ingredients ... Sorry, most of our bitters have at least 20 ingredients in each of them to round that out. And then the second flavour is Plum & Rootbeer.
Now, I always mention this to those that are unfamiliar with the soda pop of root beer in Canada and the US, and I end up chatting to them, "Well, it's kind of like your dandelion and burdock in the United Kingdom, or it's kind of like that cola that you have anywhere else in the world." It is a flavour profile that we're very familiar with in North America. And expressing that in a bitters is amazing because it ... There's also this concept and terroir that what grows together goes together, and the finished product of root beer, even though the spices, a lot of the spices come from Southeast Asia and the sub-continent India and Sri Lanka, the flavour profile matches so perfectly with say bourbon or American whiskey or American spirits.
It's interesting to think that we would make something that would be a blend of flavours from other parts of the world. But because root beer is so ingrained in our culture that it actually goes so perfectly with ingredients that grow in the US. So that was kind of cool. So we use that in Old Fashions, in Tiki drinks. It is our island-style bitters. It's using anything from all spice and vanilla to black teas and sarsaparilla. So we like using that as a bridge with very sort of high sweetener or really rich ingredients like Tiki cocktails often do. So trying that in a Mai Tai or something else is actually quite cool.
And then we have our two aromatics, which would be our Malagasy Chocolate, which is inspired by the tasting notes of Madagascar cacao beans. And Malagasy is a touch back to an original indigenous dialect of language that is only spoken by a few in Madagascar and that's due to globalisation and and other factors. And we thought it would be quite interesting to just sort of make a play on that, that Madagascar's cacao has been growing there for a long time and it has a very specific flavour profile, but it also is an indigenous ingredient.
And that is an aromatic bitters that is ... We don't describe any of our bitters as "chocolate pie" or pie in any way. And you might taste some other bitters out there that have ... Are loaded with sugar and colouring. And all of our bitters, every single wine including any of the new partnership bitters we do, everything is sugar-free and colouring-free. And that's specifically to give the end user, whether the home or the pro bartender, the ability to add the sugar or not as they wish to any cocktail.
And so, when you taste like the Malagasy Chocolate for example, on the palette it is rich cacao, it's almost lavender in a floral nature, but there's no lavender in it. It's just the blend of ingredients together just really showcase the floral nature of this cacao bean, and you can still use it in the way that you would use any chocolate bitters. I just think it's so interesting how the flavours change so dramatically when you don't add sugar.
And then when you do add sugar to say an Old Fashioned or a Cognac Manhattan or even a Rum Negroni, like even just really simple things, the way the flavours bloom is quite extraordinary. And then lastly, we have our Kensington Bitters, and Kensington is, it's an expression of herb spices, roots barks and botanicals that are part of the journey of the British Empire moving the spices through the Silk Road into the Western world. And that's why they're called Kensington.
And feel quite Chinese in their flavour profile, because a lot of the spices do come from China, but then they do feel quite Indian in nature, then they feel quite just sort of Asia at large in nature that there's elements from Southeast Asia, herbaceous qualities, then there's citrus fruit.
So it's a really expansive and really beautiful bitters that works in the same way as you would use any other aromatic bitters. And we use that quite often in sours Manhattans and Old Fashioned's, but I mean, people can use them in any way they see fit. And then without going into too much detail, the other six flavors, we have a celery bitters called Cascade Celery, another island-style Tiki bitters called Clingstone Peach bitters. We have a sort of a New Orleans' style Gentian-based bitters called Suius Cherry, which can be used in New Orleans' classics like the Sazerac or the Vieux Carre. We have the Arabica Coffee bitters, which is made from coffee beans from the same farm as we bring in the cacao beans from Madagascar. And then we also have ... I'm missing one more. What am I missing? I think that's it. Actually we only have 11 available in the US, because we do have one, we have just discontinued it though, it's the Western Haskap, it's only available in Canada.
Now, you talk a lot about flavours coming through that you might not expect. So you were talking about the lavender coming through, even though there wasn't lavender in that particular bitters. Has the process of creating these surprised you in terms of what flavour combinations result in what?
Yes. And I meant to mention, we also have Orange & Juniper bitters, which I didn't mention. We have so many bitters. We've been making bitters for a long time. Yeah, I think the flavour profiles dramatically change the moment that ingredients go under alcohol. And that's why we like to do single botanical experiments and taste the tasting notes of what that focal point or focus flavour might be. So for Grapefruit & Hop bitters, it is grapefruit. For Arabic Coffee bitters, it's coffee. So we like to express those separately and write down in the tasting notes and then build the flavour from there.
But when we build our flavours for packaging and for commercial, they're all macerated together. The botanicals start to bloom and marry when they're interacting with each other. And there've been some really interesting discoveries that had been made in those moments. And some of the flavours can be surprising, but then on the same hand, because a lot of these flavours, we know what they taste like and we've done tasting those with them separately, it's when they come together and bloom a new flavour, it's what we were always hoping for. And we always say that, when you think of alcohol as an extraction method, it's very similar to thinking about a deep fryer as an extraction of moisture and a cooking method with food.
There is some sort of like heat that almost happens when you add alcohol as an extraction method to things because it is almost cooking the ingredients it feels. So no flavours can hide, everything is penetrated. And when we add all those flavours together, we have to add them for certain periods of time and we have to add them at certain times and in certain quantities, which is really similar to cooking. The parallels between blooming flavours for bitters and cooking is, it's quite obvious.
And we talk about it a lot because I think it's the thing that people would be most familiar with too, if they're not familiar with bitters, it's like in the same vein. So I would say there have been some surprising flavor combinations, but at the end of the day it's what we were hoping of. When cherries go into maceration, it starts to bring out this really amazing licorice quality, which we love. When peaches start to go under alcohol, it starts to pull out this yeasty, bread-y note while still being tropical, which is unbelievably cool. So I think each one has their own voice and that voice is really captured when it's blending with other flavours together.
Would you say that you've learnt amazing amount more about flavour doing this than you did just bartending?
Yes. I would say it's sort of a double answer because I was studying a lot about food and flavour throughout my entire bartending career, and I've been making bitters for over half of my career. So it's always been, I guess, the study of flavour has always been part of what I've been doing. And even before I was bartending with spirits, I was a sommelier and studying wine and before that I was studying, I was reading food science books and studying classic culinary techniques.
So I suppose it's all been part of my life. I guess the better way to answer that question is that being a bartender and having the knowledge base with spirits, with wine, with food, with flavour and with travel, has really helped to bring Bittered Sling to life. And with both mine and Johnathan's experience and palettes together has really created something extraordinary that might not have been possible if I had just been a bartender focused on spirits. I think this is the result of over 45 years of combined content from Jonathan and I to create something as special as Bittered Sling.
Within the tasting notes for each of the bitters, you divide each bitter into fruit, bitter, savoury, and spice notes. How should people read these?
Well, when you go to our website, to bitteredsling.com, each flavour, if you were to click on the tasting notes, that exact page that you're referring to will come up for each bitters. We want people to understand that when it says on the front of a bottle, Grapefruit & Hops, because we don't list all the ingredients on the side of the bottle, we don't want anyone to pick it up and say, "It's just grapefruit and hops in here," we want to go into more detail and to explain why it's bitter and why bitter is important and how to use the bitter elements and the bitter characteristics of grapefruit and hops bitters in the right cocktail. So underneath we have what we call our hooray moments, try in a Tom Collins, try in a gin and tonic, try in something else.
And so I think for each block of characteristics, which would be the bitter, the savoury, the fruit and the spice, it's great to explain where we're coming from. It's great to explain what to watch out for. And like in terms of flavour profiles, if you are a fan of let's say, a Ramos Gin Fizz, then it might be great for you to try this bitters, and here's why, because it quite expansive in the savoury elements in this cocktail, using Orange & Juniper bitters for example. So we'd like to make sure that we are explaining where the bitterness comes from, what spices we're using, what fruit character exists, because even though we don't use whole fruits in all of our bitters, we do have a fruity element to a lot of our botanicals. And then lastly, the savoury notes, we like to make sure that we really hit it home with people that we don't add sugar to these products. So if they are looking for sugar-free or they are looking for more mindful drinks that those are possible too. And we include a lot of those in the hooray moments. And then lastly on that page, we have our terroir story, we're explaining why we came up, the flavour combination of putting this together and it's usually about somewhere we've traveled, something we've tasted and people that we've spent time with. And I think that is the real champion of this story, is talking about flavours in a much more supernatural sense than just the botanical itself.
Talking about travel, you've traveled a lot with Diageo and the work you do with World Class, how much has traveling influenced the flavours that you incorporate?
Well the entire portfolio of Bittered Sling was developed in 2012 for commercial. So over the years we've added a few new flavours here and there, but most of my travel that started with Diageo and World Class would start in 2015 which was well after the portfolio bitters had been created. And I would say that a lot of the places that we highlight as sort of dreams of places to visit, and some of the botanical stories that we developed for Bittered Sling are based on a culinary understanding of cooking this style of food or working in the styles of bars and restaurants, working with people that are from those regions.
But it wasn't until 2015/ 2016 that myself and also Jonathan just being able to to be a bit more expansive on some of our vacations, where we were heading to, we'd be able to go to a lot of the regions where our bitters are modelled after which was quite cool. And it was great to actually take the bitters with us on those journeys to taste the flavour profile as compared to the smell that we were highlighting in the markets and the smell that we're highlighting in the kitchens and the food that we were tasting and the zero proof drinks that we would have on the side of the street. And it was just really amazing that we had nailed the flavour profile of expressing that time and place and it took us a little bit longer to get there and visit.
So that was, I think one of the most amazing moments for us. And for me, bringing bitters on the road is great because we use them in cocktails all the time and they are perfectly matched to a number of spirit categories. And bartenders are ... They always send me messages when they know I'm starting my next trip and one of the countries that I'm heading to is where they live. They always ask me to bring bitters, which is great and we're always happy to do so, of course.
The whiskey exchange actually in London, will ship our bitters to 55 countries, over 55 countries. And we'll have the product available in Canada, US and Australia as well. So it's amazing that bartenders that are really intrigued by the flavours that we're talking about and the way that we express flavours, they don't have to wait for us to show up in a country. Obviously, having global distribution is very dreamy, but it's not a reality of this moment. So it is something that they can purchase through the whiskey exchange and join in. Join in the fun, as it were.
Now, with so many ingredients from so many different places, how important is terroir to bitters?
I think the terroir for the bitters are about the bitters and the blend themselves rather than the actual origin of where the botanicals are coming from. But I say that with the exception of our focus ingredients. So for example, the Arabica Coffee bitters, the flavour profile works because we use the flavour profile of coffee that comes from Madagascar. The Malagasy Chocolate is the same. The flavour profile works for us because we are bringing in the cacao from Madagascar. So we use botanicals that highlight and push those flavours forward of what that focus ingredient is.
So it's not as important for us to make sure that we only bring in cinnamon from China or we only bring in cinnamon from South America. It has to be the best cinnamon, it has to be the best juniper, the best angelica root. Whatever we're using, it just has to be the best product. But the focus ingredients, whether it's like the peeled citrus that we do, the orange, the lemon or the grapefruit, we want to make sure that our focus ingredients are part of telling that terroir story.
Most of our citrus, because we make our product in Vancouver, all of our citrus fruit will come from either California, Mexico or Florida. Whereas, if we were making this in Europe, it would come from South Africa or Spain or somewhere else. So I think we're quite obsessed with the terroir of our ingredients, but I think we're more obsessed with the terroir, the blend of the ingredients that it does express the flavour profile of how these come together with Canadian spirit as well in Western Canada. So we use a blend of 100% recycled fruit and Canadian grain spirit. And that is very helpful for us in telling our terroir story because there is the predominant ingredients in there are Canadian from the water and the alcohol.
Now, if someone would to buy a bottle of, let's say the Plum & Rootbeer bitters for the first time, how would you suggest that they first use it?
I always think the first ... Yeah, no problem. I always think the first and most important thing to do is to visit our website, bitteredsling.com, under flavours and then click on Plum & Rootbeer. It will give you the full deck of flavour profile and flavour notes the same way that you've just described them with the bitter, the spice, the fruit and the savoury character plus the terroir story with lots of cocktail recipes. Anything from standard strength drinks, to mixed drinks that are mostly stirred or shaken drinks, island inspired drinks like Tiki drinks, zero proof, low proof and the like.
So it's great to use our website as a resource for everything first. And we do have a full recipe deck on there. Also on our Instagram, we do quite a lot on there as a way to to fall in love with the products, and it's usually how people end up buying it in the first place to be honest, because we are a small company that does a gorilla marketing program where we focus mostly on our bitter babe ambassadors across Canada and we're all amazing bartenders and then we focus the rest of it on our Instagram.
With that particular bitter flavour, what do you like to make with it?
Well, I have so many. We're generally quite obsessed with it, using it in a classic Old Fashioned recipe with any bourbon that you choose and with any sugar that you choose. And using Plum & Rootbeer is super, super cool. Just how it twists and turns the flavours coming from the oak, it's quite amazing. And if you want to make like a real splash with making an Old Fashioned with Plum & Rootbeer, we recommend using maybe an alternative sugar to white sugar, you could use raw sugar or demerara sugar, which is the dark sticky brown sugar from South America. You could use maple syrup, you could use Birch syrup. But anything that is a little bit darker and more caramel like in it's flavour profile or a little bit more licoricey in its flavour profile is so amazing with Plum & Rootbeer.But then again, if you have just regular simple syrup or white sugar, that is fine too.
And then for bourbon, I mean I have a preference to bourbons that have more rye in the mash bill, and so using something like Bulleit bourbon would be perfect but it would be up to the user to choose their preference. But then again, we don't want people to stop at using an Old Fashioned quite verbatim with American whiskey. You can use that Plum & Rootbeer bitters in an Old Fashioned made with rum, an Old Fashioned made with scotch whiskey, an Old Fashioned made with cognac or armagnac, or Calvados.
There's lots of different ways that people can use it, and the Plum & Rootbeer will go well with every single one of those spirits that I just mentioned.
We've done Plum & Rootbeers in like a Vodka Collins that has like a peach tea syrup where if you go to David's Tea or TWG and you get a black tea that has the influence of peach or rose or something else, it doesn't even have to be peach, it can be anything, get your syrup from that just by brewing the tea as you normally would and then adding an equal portion of white sugar, stirring, and that's it. Adding that in a Collins with fresh lemon juice with vodka, with carbonated water and Plum & Rootbeer bitters is amazing.
So we don't want people to feel like each of the bitters will pigeonhole you into a category of how to use it. We give a lot of different directions and how you can use it, and I think people just need to take a risk, they need to take a risk and just use it in as many ways as they feel comfortable with. Bit I would say like the Old Fashioned is a great place to start. The classic Mai Tai recipe does not call for bitters. However, I like adding Plum & Rootbeer bitters to anything that is Tiki inspired, anything with pineapple juice, anything with coconut, anything with rum tends to work quite well. So I think exploring that is also really great.
So basically, you use the website as a guide and then experiment out from there?
Tell us a little bit about the story behind the name, Bittered Sling.
Well, Bittered Sling is the original name for a cocktail from 1806. A cocktail was vulgarly described as a Bittered Sling, a combination of bitter spirits, water and sugar. And for us, it was very important that as we went down this road of creating almost like a new style of bitters, which is still made in a classic style, we just don't use any sugar and we're using no colouring, we wanted to make sure that it was a testament to the reason why bitters were used in the first place, which was to balance a cocktail to add a richness and to dry out the cocktail to add that certain something just in the same ways you salt and pepper in cooking. And that's why bitters were used originally beyond the medicinal reasons why people would use bitters.
And I think the term Bittered Sling in general is about balance. And when we look at that original, then we can help take them on a very creative flavour journey of deliciousness.
Well, thank you so much for joining us. And if people want more information, go to the website ...
bitteredsling.com, and then also on Instagram, instagram.com/bittered_sling. And it would be really wonderful for everyone on this listening in to be able to chat bitters with us. So send us a message anytime.
Thank you so much, Lauren.