Janet and Avery Glasser are the people behind Bittermens – they founded their company in 2007, when cocktail bitters beyond Anogstura were something for only the nerdiest of spirit nerds. Starting back then with a prototype version of their now famous Xocolatl Mole Bitters, 11 years later they deliver a broad range of cocktail bitters, liqueurs, syrups and spirits for sophisticated bartenders in the US, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Today they took the time to answer some of our questions.
Perola: On your website you tell us, that you started the whole Bittermens story with trying to „create an extract of a traditional mexican cooking sauce“, later known as the Xocolatl Mole Bitters. How has your way of creating new bitters changed from back then to today?
Janet and Avery: Our method of creating bitters really hasn’t changed since we started. The first, and most important question we ask ourselves is “Does this solve a problem for bartenders?” – It’s why we don’t simply go and copy flavors that other producers make or why we don’t simply go through historical documents and try to re-create old, lost recipes. Most of our flavor combinations are both unique and useful for bartenders. A few flavors we have made, were because the options available in the market left a flavor gap for bartenders. For example, our Orange Cream Citrate was made because all of the orange bitters that were on the market at that time were so heavily spiced and bittered that they really failed to deliver that sensation of biting into an orange in the summertime.
Perola: When you started working with bitters, how hard was it, to get them into bars? Where the bartenders at that time eagerly waiting for high quality bitters or did you have to do a lot of explaining?
Janet and Avery: Eleven years ago, bartenders were breaking out of the mold of simply replicating classic cocktails and were starting on a path of modifying the classics for more modern tastes, as well as building new cocktails that used the classics as templates. Offering a new set of bitters that bartenders could use to create these new modern classic cocktails opened up a new world of possibilities. It wasn’t as much as bartenders were waiting for new types of bitters when we started making Bittermens, but there was a real interest in exploring new products and flavors. Because the flavor combinations we were building were so varied in comparison to what was already on the market, yet still functioned like the classic bitters they were so used to, we saw great early adoption.
Perola: Your original bitters range did more traditional bitter tastes (speaking from the year 2018) like Grapefruit or cinnamon in a new and interesting way, for example when using a cream citrate instead of „simple“ orange bitters. Your newer range with bitters like Krupnik or Winter Melon is more on the innovative side with taste profiles completely new to most people. Is that the evolution bitters have to take in order to keep up with bartenders all around the world doing their own infusions?
Janet and Avery: Don’t forget, eleven years ago, the idea of using chocolate or hops in bitters was completely unique – and building bitters based on tart berries like our Burlesque Bitters, or creating shrub tinctures like our Hellfire Habanero Shrub and Orchard Street Celery Shrub were considered pretty crazy when we first released them. Because we try to see what flavors right now would be complementary to the direction that the cocktail and culinary world are moving, we are always trying to innovate and build useful new products for bartenders.
Perola: Speaking about „homemade“ bitters and infusions: In your retired facebook group „First, do no harm“ and your columns on the website http://neatpour.com you talk about the unknown dangers that can come from working with herbs, nuts and so on. What do you think are the biggest problems when crafting your own products at home or in your bar?
Janet and Avery: The biggest problem? Arrogance. The belief that what you are doing is inherently safe without constantly questioning and researching. The best example right now is housemade tonic water. Decades ago, soda makers moved away from using cinchona bark to make tonic and instead use cinchona bark-derived quinine. This wasn’t just done because it created a better, more crisp tonic water – it was done because doctors knew that some of the other compounds in cinchona bark, like quinidine (which is found in cinchona bark alongside quinine), could be extremely dangerous. For close to a hundred years, doctors in developed countries haven’t had to worry about quinidine-intensified prolonged QT syndrome. Now, it’s something that needs to be considered.
Perola: Can you tell us some of the most common problems or mistakes with doing infusions or bitters yourself?
Janet and Avery: You can’t make bitters with low proof alcohol. Vodka, at 38-50% still contains too much water to properly make stable extracts. You need to be extracting your botanicals at much higher levels – 65% ethanol or more.
Perola: Back to safe spirits: you also feature a lot of very special liqueurs and spirits like Citron Sauvage, or Bäska Snaps. How do you find those liquors that are not present at specialized stores, even in europe? Do you look especially for rare things to complete your flavour library or do you take inspirations from bars or your trips around the world?
Janet and Avery: Again, every product we create is there to solve a problem. Sometimes it’s looking at a historical product and reimagining it so it works better in modern cocktails. Sometimes it’s taking style that is endangered and making a version as an act of preservation. These days, we’re looking at culinary trends and trying to find the point where it intersects with the cocktail world when developing new products.
Perola: In your column you advice bartenders to work with spirits that everyone has in his bar or are at least easy to remake instead of working with highly customized infusions or super rare liquors when they want to create a drink that goes viral. How does that go together with your very cool yet special product range?
Janet and Avery: Our bitters are distributed across most of the world (and we’re actively searching out distribution in the countries where we are not yet available) – which means that using our products in cocktails that are intended for worldwide consumption can be remade by bartenders wherever they may be.
Perola: Do you have any product in your range, maybe one of the retired ones, that you would say didn’t work well when looking back at it?
Janet and Avery: Our Amere Sauvage was an absolutely wonderful product – a gentian liqueur that was made in the pre-WWII style using direct maceration of French Yellow Gentian, Chamomile and Citrus Peel. It was a product that many French people in the spirits industry fell in love with. Unfortunately, we were up against classic brands like Suze, Aveze and Salers which all came to the US market shortly after our release. We just didn’t have the ability to compete against brands that had massively larger volumes and lower price points.
Perola: And the most likely more fun question: What are your favorite products out of your bitters, liqueurs and spirits?
Janet and Avery: It’s very hard to say. If we had to pick one from each category, it would most likely be our Xocolatl Mole Bitters – the first one Avery ever formulated; the Tepache – our Mexican-inspired spiced Pineapple spirit; and the New Orleans Coffee Liqueur – a coffee liqueur where every 50 gallon batch starts with 40 lbs of single estate coffee, roasted f