The Bitter Truth: A Peek Inside Spirit of York's Bitters Bar
Spirit of York, Toronto’s newest craft distillery, boasts an impressive bitters bar with hundreds of tinctures, spices, barks and peels that add complex flavours to mixed beverages. Bartender Simon Ho, who heads up the distillery’s bitters bar, tells us why we should be paying more attention to this cocktail enhancer.
What is a cocktail bitters and what qualities do they add or bring out in a beverage?
I like to think of bitters as cocktail seasoning: they can add a variety of things to a drink including taste, balance and aromatics. One of the first written definitions of a cocktail describes it as a “stimulating liquor comprised of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” Clearly bitters have been an essential part of the mixology game since way back.
Tell me about the Spirit of York bitters library.
Our bitters library was built as a place for experimentation and education. We don't carry any outside bitters at the moment – everything is made in-house. We have a few hundred tinctures that we’re working with, including coffee, angelica root and lemon. Tinctures are basically a singular essential oil in an alcohol solution.
What does the process of making bitters look like?
We take all possible flavours, peels, barks, roots, spices, and build tinctures by infusing them into different concentrations of our ethanol, which is distilled in house and used to make our vodka and gin. We proof the ethanol down to a lower strength to use in our tinctures and it provides a terrific base: it extracts the flavour of whatever ingredient you match it with. We experiment with blends and learn how they interact with the alcohol and build on top of that by mixing and matching those flavours. Once we are happy with a recipe we scale upwards and produce roughly 30-40 bottles in a single production.
How long does it take to make bitters?
When we’re experimenting with recipes and ratios, finalizing a blend can take months. It’s all about finding the proper balance of varying flavours – sweet, floral, spicy. Once we have that locked in it takes roughly six weeks to produce a bitters. We currently offer three styles of bitters that were built to work well with the natural flavours of our spirits: a classic aromatic, our strawberry and Szechuan pepper blend and an orange-based bitter. The strawberry Szechuan has a lot of complexity. We mixed together certain roots and barks and built upon that base with some spice. The end product is very well rounded.
When a customer comes in for custom bitters, what are the steps to determining the type of bitters you'll make for them?
We usually start by asking what type of cocktails and flavours they like. It really depends on the preferences of the individual: what they are looking for, and what flavours they enjoy. Smelling, tasting and sampling helps the process. We had one visitor come in recently who preferred cocktails with perfume-heavy notes and a stronger floral nose. We worked with a few different options and built a customized blend that included angelica root, lavender and licorice root.
If you really want to see how bitters changes a cocktail, put it in a vodka soda
What bars or restaurants in Toronto make excellent use of bitters in their cocktail lists?
The cocktail culture has really risen and a lot of spots in Toronto are doing cool things. Some places I think are making an excellent use of bitters are Pretty Ugly, the Drake Hotel, Civil Liberties, Rush Lane and Cocktail Bar. I put my trust in the professional bartenders they have at these establishments to steer me in the proper, mood-dependent direction.
What are three types of bitters that every home bartender should have on their bar cart?
For starters, a classic aromatic bitters like Angostura and also something bright and citrusy – a lemon, grapefruit or orange bitter. Lastly I would go with something outside your comfort zone – if you’re not a chocolate person, try incorporating it into your bitters and see what happens. But again, it really depends on personal preference.
Can you recommend a few cocktails that are a good way to taste how bitters can change the flavours of a cocktail?
A Manhattan or an Old Fashioned are classic cocktails where you can really experience the taste of bitters. Due to the limited amounts of ingredients in those cocktails, bitters can really add complexity. If you really want to see how the flavour changes a cocktail though, put it in something very basic such as a vodka soda. The bitters will completely transform the drink – it’s a great way to get crafty with more neutral cocktails.
Spirit of York, 12 Trinity Street, 416-777-0001, spiritofyork.com