Equal parts cocktails: American Royal Zephyr

This cocktail hails from one of my favorite Brooklyn bars, and appropriately enough appears in a new cocktail collection called Brooklyn Bartender. I love that this drink not only contains equal parts whiskey & Lillet, but also equal parts of 3 types of bitters. Score!

American Royal Zephyr

Damon Boelte, Grand Army; as printed in Brooklyn Bartender, by Carey Jones

1 oz bonded bourbon

1 oz Lillet rosé

2 dashes Angostura bitters

2 dashes orange bitters

2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Champagne

Combine all ingredients except Champagne in a mixing glass with ice. Stir until well chilled and strain into a coupe. Top with Champagne and garnish with a cherry.

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Q&A with Mark Buettler of Brooklyn Hemispherical Sriracha Bitters

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.

Why bitters?

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.

Why sriracha?

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.

Cocktailing: Why Brooklyn wishes it was Portland

I’m back from the IACP conference in Portland, Oregon, and I have to say, Portland is one city that knows how to get its geek on. I’ve never seen so many passionate foodies in one place (and I’m not even referring to the conference). Everywhere, there’s great coffee, great cocktails, great food. A sprawling greenmarket that makes my precious Union Square look like a postage stamp. Everyone seems to be making something or building a small business, and sporting a deeply personal tattoo while they’re at it. It just feels like a place where it’s easy to find one’s tribe.

In other words, it’s like the the best bits of what has become funky Brooklyn sprawl were all mashed together into one clean, rain-swept, bike-able small community, minus the Manhattan envy.

Let’s take cocktail culture, for example. (You knew I was going there eventually…) And it is indeed a culture.  Perhaps it’s because real estate prices are just so much lower than other metro areas, and scale is less of an issue, it seems like anyone with an artisan cocktail pipe dream can open a bar (hello, Beaker & Flask!) or start a business (hello, Trader Tiki and Aviation gin!)

My first day at IACP, I sat next to a local denizen who insisted that “Portland is a beer city located within wine country. Cocktails are a far third.” After spending some time in the local watering holes, I have to heartily disagree. Yes, there is plenty of great local beer and wine — especially the latter. I finally understand all of the references to “good bread” in France. The vinious equivalent of “good wine” surely must refer to the enjoyable, drinkable stuff made in Willamette Valley.

But the cocktails!  What I loved most about Portland’s cocktail scene was the  joy everyone seemed to take in experimentation.  I didn’t get to try every place I wanted (sorry, Teardrop Lounge…Saucebox…Belly Timber…Vault. next time, I promise).  But here are some places I did get to try, and highly recommend:

Cocktail shakers at Beaker & Flask

Beaker & Flask:  I was lucky enough to have Patrick Coleman, food editor from the alt-weekly Portland Mercury, as my tour guide for an evening. He knows all the bartenders and best tippling spots, plus he’s quite the snappy dresser so it was fun to be seen with him. Our first stop was Beaker & Flask, one of those spots where they embrace local brands and make their own grenadine, syrups, and coconut water ice cubes. I tried The Triple Lindy (Muscat Grappa, Riesling Syrup, fresh lime and lemon, demerara sugar). It was light and oddly floral, although it grew on me the more I sipped.

“It’s an intellectual drink,” Patrick quipped. “It’s like someone you respect, but don’t enjoy talking to.” His drink, Between the Posts (Rock & Rye soda, fresh grapefruit, Campari, Peychaud’s bitters), would have been the better dinner companion.  I swiped the menu on the way out -scroll down if you’d like a closer look.

Thatch:  A sweet little tiki bar, kitch, pupu platters and all. I was astounded that we easily scored seats at the bar, which would never, never happen on a weekday night in New York.  We were offered a preview of the new spring/summer menu, which hadn’t yet been printed up (nothing for me to pocket, alas). I tried a fabulous, fragrant rum drink called “The Broadway Baby.” It was also quite potent, as tiki drinks often are, so I can’t recall what else was in the drink.

Clyde Commons Negroni

Clyde Common:  I went later in the week, explicitly to try something with Jeff Morgenthaler’s famed barrel-aged spirits, and settled on a Negroni. And yes, everything you’ve read about it being the best Negroni you’ve ever had are true. About halfway through the drink, Morgenthaler slid over another drink, in a slightly smaller glass, and uttered those magic words that are like catnip to a drinks journalist:  “It’s not on the menu yet.” It was Robert Hess’s Trident creation, equal parts Cynar, Sherry, and Whiskey (here, barrel aged about 8 weeks). 

Again, I swiped the menu (last seen beneath my cocktail, in the photo at right). And again, I’m scanning it so you can view it below.

Bar Ten 01:  I went, but didn’t stay, since it was understandably packed on a Saturday evening. But since I saw charming barkeep Kelley Swenson at an IACP event earlier in the week and thoroughly enjoyed his Chamomile Sour cocktail there, I say it counts.

Beaker & Flask Cocktail Menu

Clyde Commons cocktail menu