A few weeks ago, I interviewed bartender John Byrd, at The Bedford restaurant in Brooklyn — the same day that his “Wake Up, Doc” cocktail was featured in a Grub Street spread of vegetable cocktails. The secret ingredient in the drink? Brooklyn Hemispherical Sriracha Bitters. Now, I’m no stranger to sriracha in cocktails, nor to spicy bitters. But this was the first time I’d encountered both in the same product!
After a bit of wrangling, I arranged an interview with Mark Buettler, co-owner of Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters. In addition to the Sriracha Bitters, he’s also on the cusp of releasing Black Mission Fig Bitters, Meyer Lemon Bitters, and other exciting flavors.
A bit about Mark: he was formerly head bartender at Dressler in Brooklyn, where John Byrd also worked, and where he met co-conspirator Jason Rowan, then a Dressler barfly. Mark still “bartends all over town,” as he puts it, when not working for wine/liquor distributor Empire Merchants, or playing proud papa to a newborn baby.
MB: As a bartender, I focus on organic, homemade, and fresh. I started with making celery bitters. My first attempts were based on something found online — these days you can find anything you need or want online.
MB: I love sriracha. I had visited Thailand maybe 2-3 years ago, and spent a little over a month in Thailand with my then-girlfriend, now wife. Sriracha originates from a small town named Sriracha. There’s nothing like tasting where it originates. You know sriracha – the bottles here with the green top and rooster.
I talked to some people over there to learn how to make sriracha. The ingredients are chile, garlic, vinegar, sugar, water, maybe a little variation here or there. Pretty straightforward. I’ve been taking some traditional recipes people were willing to share, some research online, and then marrying them together and coming up with my own in my apartment here. It’s a pretty simple process.
So how do you make sriracha bitters?
MB: First I make the base bitters – I take the barks and herbs, and just throw them in there. As I started playing around with flavors, I found that I had more control over the taste of it if I started with base bitters & brewed it first for several weeks. From there, adding flavor was secondary. I let it steep in there after I strain out the other ingredients. You get more pure expression. Then you’re not dealing with the bitters still brewing with barks and herbs and getting stronger.
So the bitters brew three weeks. I strain them. Then I make the sriracha and let it sit and mingle and the flavors become one. You get the pepper heat and flavor in the bitters that way. You have to add a lot.
How did you know when you got it right?
MB: I kept bringing John Byrd the samples. We found you have to make it VERY hot, and add a bunch of sriracha to it. Since you only add a few drops of bitters here or there to a drink, maybe ¼ teaspoon, not much more, the heat needs to be extra concentrated.
For a few weeks I had a tongue that was constantly numb and on fire. I had to bring it to John, saying “I blew my taste buds out, I can’t taste anything.” When I thought they were too fiery and hot they were perfect for a drink. It needs to be very potent for it to affect the taste profile of your drink.
Many lost taste buds later… we had the sriracha bitters down.
How do you use sriracha bitters in a cocktail?
MB: Being part of the food industry for many years, I’ve noticed more people experimenting with heat and spice in food, and embracing it more. That was not the case 5-10 years ago, not as much as it is these days. Which is one of the reasons I thought it would be fun to do these bitters.
Thus far, we’ve experimented with using them in traditional drinks and riffs on traditional drinks that would already have bitters. Warmer liquors that would hold up to heat & take that flavor –whiskey, bourbon, rye – were our natural first go-to. We developed a Sazerac called the “Sriracha-rac.” It seemed like it would work in theory, and it turned out beautifully, with the sugar, and little bit of acid/oils from the lemon. It’s also a natural with tequila – we did a riff on the Paloma with the bitters.
It gives a fun, earthy, subtle hint of spice in the background. I’m excited to get it out there in the hands of other bartenders so they can do things I never thought of.
So how do we get our hands on a bottle of those Sriracha Bitters?
MB: We’re still fledgling. I can be contacted directly through the Brooklyn Barman site. I can also be contacted at www.brooklynbitters.com. We’ll have a Paypal link up and order form in the next few weeks. I‘m looking forward to getting it to the bartending community. What’s most important to us is keeping things local and seasonal. The bitters are made in Brooklyn, and as much as possible the ingredients ae sourced in Brooklyn.
Anything else spicy in the works?
MB: We’re working with a restaurant opening in Greenpoint that has their own spicy rub for meat, which they’re looking to work into bitters. Spicy, but also savory. I think they’ll be called “Carne Asada Bitters.” It won’t be made with meat, but it will have an earthy, meaty flavor.
Ever thought of making Bacon Bitters?
MB: Bacon Bitters!! Well, I am now.