Bittermens' Janet Glasser on Bitter Liqueurs
After trying Bittermens gentian liqueur in the Shanty's Sauvetage cocktail, we decided to check out Bittermens Spirits, a Brooklyn-based company that specializes in bitter and herbal liqueurs. We found that its products have been embraced by some of the city's top bars, like PDT, Amor y Amargo, and Dram, and caught up with one of the co-founders, Janet Glasser, who took time out from bottling to tell us where she gets ideas for her unique flavor combinations.
How did Bittermens Spirits get its start?
Bittermens Spirits was started in mid-2011 for much the same reason as we started making the bitters -- to bring new flavors to bartenders so that they can create new cocktails. We realized that making bitter liqueurs was an obvious extension of what we had been doing with our cocktail bitters. We started working with Mayur Subbarao, a longtime friend who has been making vermouths and liqueurs at least as long as we have been making bitters. With his methodology for liqueur making and our experience at Bittermens with modifying small-batch formulas and processes so that they can scale to thousands of bottles per batch, we teamed up and launched Bittermens Spirits, Inc. last year.
What sets your bitters apart?
Our aim is to create new flavors for our bitters and extracts, not reproduce historical formulas or re-create flavors that other people already do well. We also try to make sure that our products fill a need before we even start working on a flavor. Our flavors are primarily based on requests that we receive from bartenders.
What are some of your new bitter spirits like?
The Amère Nouvelle and Amère Sauvage, like all of the liqueurs, came out of the fact that we were looking for flavors that weren't available in the U.S. The Amère Nouvelle, for example, is inspired by the Alsatian Amer Fleur de Bière liqueurs (of which Amer Picon is the most famous). We took the flavors of bitter orange and gentian as inspiration and then tried to figure out how to make a liqueur that is better designed to work in cocktails -- so we stripped out the burnt caramel, boosted the alcohol, and increased the amount of botanicals. This created a liqueur that works not just for drinking neat or on the rocks, but that works for cocktails as well.
Our Hiver Amer is a cinnamon liqueur -- there is really nothing like it in the market right now for use in cocktails. Bartenders have started using tonic syrups or making their own -- the Commonwealth, which is our tonic liqueur, takes tonic up a notch as we use alcohol in addition to water, which extracts more flavor from chinchona, the primary flavor and source of the quinine in tonic water.
How do you get ideas for new products?
We figure out what flavors we want to work on based on input from bartenders that we meet from all around the world. We get inspiration from conversations that we have and then start prototyping. We try the prototypes in cocktails and get feedback from a wide range of people -- bartenders, cocktail aficionados, and casual drinkers alike!
What is your favorite Bittermens liqueur?
I love all of our products, but if I had to choose one that I am especially fond of it would probably be the Citron Sauvage, our bitter grapefruit liqueur. I like it on its own, added to soda water, or in a Citron Collins, which is gin, Citron Sauvage, lemon juice, and soda water. We recently had a wonderful stirred drink at the Bedford in Chicago that combined the Citron Sauvage with bourbon and sweet vermouth.
What's next for you guys?
We're constantly working on new things, but for every 10 ideas we have, only one or two of them may ever become products. For this reason, we don't often talk about them until they are very close to being ready!
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.