I’ve had many eureka moments in the over 200 episodes of Lush Life I’ve done, but never so many in one episode! All to do with bitters.
Who should be here to answer all my questions about bitters, and there were many, but my friend and former Lush Lifer Lauren Mote & her partner in business and life Chef Jonathan Chovancek, Co-Founders of Bittered Sling Bitters, Canada’s award winning cocktail bitters brand.
To hear all about Lauren’s background, check out my two eps dedicated to her career.
Jonathan has had more than 20 years experience creating local, sustainable fare for some of Canada’s most celebrated, establishments, plus he has contributed to many magazines, been on telly, and was the chef/host of CBC TV’s groundbreaking documentary Village on a Diet, which was watched by more than a million people coast to coast.
With those two at the helm, let’s see how many eureka moments you have!
Here is our cocktail of the week:
Photo by Jonathan Chovancek!
A perfect cocktail for an uncertain end of the year. Times are always changing, but it seems that for at least a good while, they haven't changed as much as this! Sit back, breathe and take a sip!
- 1.50 oz | 45 mL Tanqueray Ten Gin
- 1.00 oz | 30 mL Rose Vermouth
- 0.25 oz | 10 mL Verjus Cordial*
- 0.25 oz | 10 mL Campari
- 2 dashes Bittered Sling Orange & Juniper Bitters
- Stir all ingredients over ice in a mixing glass
- Strain neat into a chilled cocktail glass
- Express orange oils over the top of the cocktail, and around the glass
*Verjus Cordial = equal parts 1:1 simple syrup to white verjus
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Lauren & Jonathan. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
Susan: I am thrilled to have you both on the show. Lauren, you’ve been here twice and Jonathan, this is your first time. Now everyone can learn about Lauren. We have two episodes dedicated to everything that’s Lauren Mote. We are here specifically because it’s my How To Drink series on how to drink, really, how to use bitters, because they are something that kind of scare me.
I’m not sure really what they are and what they do in a cocktail. I think maybe a lot of home bartenders think that, so let’s get to exploring. First, we have Jonathan with us. so why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got here sitting next to Ms. Lauren Mote.
Jonathan: This is the most amazing part of any interview because I wouldn’t be talking to you without Lauren in my life and we met in 2010. First of all, my background is cooking. I’m a chef. I started cooking in 1992, which is longer than some of your listeners may actually be alive.
Susan: We don’t talk about age on this podcast.
Jonathan: We are not agist! It’s the last time I’ll bring it up. So, we met in 2010 and started dating and our dates were always focused on flavors and it started with wine. We’d do wine tastings and get all cork dorky. Then we started to get experience in spirits tasting. for me, that was a real awakening because I was a Vodka Soda kind of guy then.
Lauren: You did like Oban though.
Jonathan: I loved, yes. I love scotch. Very, very good scotch whisky. But I really didn’t know a lot about the cocktail and spirits world until I met Lauren. At the bar that she was running in Vancouver, it was all bitters and house-made tinctures, vermouths, infusions. she was really pioneering that whole side of mixology back in 2010.
Susan: Lauren. Remind me, where were you exactly at this time?
Lauren: Exactly at this time?
Susan: When you met him.
Lauren: I was getting a Facebook request from him back during the days when you had to explain why, which LinkedIn used to do up until only a couple of years ago, we had to say how do you know this person? You’d have a prompt message to add this person as a friend, otherwise they don’t have to add you.
And he said, “Hi, Lauren Mote, I’m chef Jonathan. I work in the same industry in the same city as you in Vancouver, Canada. I think that we should be connected because we have 800 mutual friends, but we’ve never met.”
Jonathan: Did I say my name is chef Jonathan?
Lauren: No, I made that up.
Susan: So, it’s a good story. We’re going with it.
Jonathan: And was in my chef whites wearing an apron?
Susan: Oh, my gosh. I love it. That was your picture, right? Your Facebook picture had the toque, right? I meant, in your career, were you already a sommelier?
Susan: You were working at a bar? You were already into cocktails?
Lauren: Well, yeah, because, even prior to being of legal age to serve alcohol, I was still working in restaurants and working in fast food restaurants, dressing, burgers, singing songs at Licks in Toronto. that was since 1996. then in 2000 in Canada, you’re legally allowed to serve alcohol at 18. I started serving in 2000 when I was 18. Then the following year. I started to serve the drinks and drink the drinks when I was 19. I continued going in an educational direction. That is kind of reflected today in a different way, which you can talk about later.
I was in university studying Peace and Conflict Studies and International Relations but working in bars and restaurants at the same time, and eventually I made the switch and working in hospitality became the priority. Then the education I was doing became secondary. Then, when I switched fully in 2005 and started studying wine, I started my sommelier courses in Toronto working with amazing sommelier Lissa like bistro. They have one of the biggest wine sellers in Canada. I moved to Vancouver in 2007 and worked for Lumiere, which also was probably one of the most well-known high-end restaurants in Canada. It was owned by Rob Feenie,a celebrity chef.
I worked with lots of really great front of house people. I just continued my studies, but cocktails weren’t a thing. At that point, we had mandatory cocktail programs in restaurants in Vancouver. We didn’t make that the focus. The focus was almost entirely wine and what we would do interesting with digestives to pair with desserts and petit fours.
I studied wine. I was writing wine programs and then spirits started to come in. Of course, we had to have an amazing single malt and whisky selection from all over the world. Then from there, cocktails just seem to find their way in as the popularity in the west coast of the US, in Seattle, LA, San Francisco, Portland started to rise. Then it indeed started to rise in Vancouver. So, I sort of went with that flow. Three years later in 2010, when I met Jonathan, it was already the third bar program, fourth bar program that I was writing in Vancouver where I was writing both wine and cocktails and spirits listings.
Jonathan: Needless to say, I was smitten?
Susan: Yeah. So, you got this now, it’s out in the open, this Facebook request. You obviously answered, yes. Yes, I will meet this person. Had you heard of him as a chef and knew his work?
Lauren: Yes, because I knew him through a couple of other people. I knew who was.
Susan: The 800 other Facebook friends that you had in common?
Lauren: That’s the thing. I mean when you add someone on Facebook back then, I mean, it wasn’t haphazardly. You were intentionally adding someone on Facebook. I saw his name, but he added me as a friend. I started looking at his pictures like total stalker. Okay.
He was wearing chef blacks. He wasn’t wearing chef whites, but his profile picture for a long time was a really intense and beautiful bouffant hairstyle with shaved sides where he was holding a knife while he was cutting something. These are some of the first interactions I had with Johnathan’s virtual personality. He was doing the same thing on his side, looking at my pictures, not realizing that I was six foot one.
Jonathan: And I am five foot seven. When we met for the first time, I was like, well, hi, Lauren.
Susan: Well, personally, my brother also is five foot seven and his wife is six foot. So, it all happens in many, many, instances. So why were you interested in meeting this Ms. Lauren mote on Facebook? What was it about?
Jonathan: I was single man, and she was a…
Susan: All right. So, it was romantic.
Jonathan: But actually, there is more to this story I had actually read quite a few of the blog posts that she was writing. She had a blog called Clog Media at the time, and she was writing about food and beverage, but a lot of it was food and flavor. It was like 2010.
So, El Bulli and Alinea were the big restaurants that everybody was into, what modernist cuisine was all about. That was sort of a hook where I was reading about, she was doing extractions of citrus and spice flavors through a handheld nitrous siphon, which was really cool.
I’m writing about the tasting notes. that led to oh she runs a bar program. I had a friend in town and I said, we should go check out Lauren’s bar program and meet her to give her my phone number, also be social and have a nice night out with a friend.
Susan: What were you drinking then? Or where were you drinking? What types are you? You know, chefs, don’t they, oh, I guess it’s bartenders end with a beer, but what do chefs end the night with.
Jonathan: I have always been a big fan of eating and drinking everything. If you put something in front of me and it’s intriguing and it’s got a story, I’m going to taste it. if I like it, I’m going to consume all of it. So, to answer that question, whatever is delicious. If it’s a really tasty local beer I’m down with that.
If it’s great wine, you know, we’re from Vancouver, which has incredible wine producers and the Okanagan Valley, and also incredible spirits producers. Back in 2010, there was only a handful. Now there’s hundreds. We were really lucky to be at the forefront of that cocktail renaissance, which coincided with the craft beer movement and craft spirits movement.
And in Canada, the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Vancouver, media really embraced it. Culture really embraced it. The other thing that was happening at the same time as the big farm to table locavore hundred-mile diets, slow food movement. That was what we were into, so that’s what we talked about when we went out for drinks. We talked about food and we talked about restaurants. We talked about flavors when we started dating, just a natural progression. We’re on dates where we’re going to good restaurants, we’re going to good bars to see our friends, we’re talking about all this, great, delicious gastronomy.
Then when we go home, we would do experiments. One of the experiments we started doing was make some bitters and Lauren had, when I met her, she probably had 50 or 60 bitters randomly around the bar and jars just macerating flavors. It was a really great exercise for me to understand what it was she was doing from an alchemy perspective and also creative perspective.
When you’re talking about cocktails and, and everything, a lot of it is about the magic of what happens when you combine these ingredients together. You know, it’s people singing together, these magical overtones and choruses fill the room. It’s the same with flavors on your palate and so we would spend evenings just experimenting with flavors. Then that’s what sort of led us into developing Bittered Sling as a retail brand.
Susan: All right. Let’s go back and as I said, at the beginning, I know that bitters exists. I have some bitters of yours here. I have some other brands, which we won’t point out over there. But number one, I’m not really sure what they are. I know they’re a combination of things are made into a bitter and I’m not really sure how to use them.
So, for someone who doesn’t really know what they are or how to use them, can you tell me a little maybe history or exactly why they came about and why they’re one of the three ingredients that actually makes a cocktail, a historical classic cocktail.
Lauren: For sure. It’s a long story, but I will condense it down. Essentially. since people started distilling alcohol or distilling fermentable starch into alcohol, the alcohol has always been infused. Whether it was used with infusions of flowers and different, beautiful aromatic ingredients and, maybe, made into perfumes and soap or potentially alcohol had other very good for you ingredients or local items found on hillsides that were excellent at solving whatever ailments you had and served as a remedy would be infused into alcohol. Alcohol is actually the most magical solvent. Water is a great solvent, but alcohol is a magical solvent, because it suspends whatever you add to it in time and space for an almost indefinite shelf life.
Bitters and the way that we use them today were not really how they were intended in the beginning, but I think the evolution over the last several centuries, maybe the last 400, 300 years has really been the evolution of how we drink. From wines to distilled spirits or the blend of wines and distilled spirits together, or other ingredients and teas, it also is part of the globalization of different ingredients from spices to teas, to coffee, to sugar and different things.
I think as humans have evolved to utilize different things, to have the items that they have always had in their pantries or always had in their kitchens or bought at the pharmacy or what have you, they too have also evolved. Now if we fast forward to say the early 1800’s, I mean the most famous example of Angostura bitters, which was created by a German doctor called Johann Siegert, and he moved to Venezuela to be the Surgeon General of Bolívar’s army.
It was there that he created Angostura Bitters as we know it today. That would be the prototype back then that was created in 1824 that was essentially an infusion of different ingredients that were found locally, infused into local alcohol. One can assume it might’ve been sugarcane or grape distillate at that time. From there, it was added to every ration. It was used as medicine. It was used as liquid courage. It was used to whet the appetite like an aperitif almost. That as our earliest example, and also one of the very few examples that survived through prohibition and two World Wars and different things, that’s amazing that we have that as our primary example.
Of course, they would not be the last. We’ve seen several brands come out since then, but I think the reason why we started making bitters is because bitters in a lot of ways are similar to wine or local cooking or any other sort of cottage industry that might exist in a small location where it becomes an expression of the local access ingredients and techniques that you have.
Bittered Sling for us was the way of creating a line of bitters that are made in the traditional sense, in the way that Angostura or Peychaud’s would have made their bitters in the 1800’s, used in the same way that you would use them in classic cocktails, like a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned, a sour, et cetera.
We were primarily focused on ingredients that told the story of Canada and the story of Canada, If you know, any of our listeners are from Canada or have visited Canada, it’s very hard to distill Canadian cuisine down to what we eat: beaver tails, poutine, and bannock, it’s more than that.
This was part of the reason why Jonathan, he’s looking at me with love eyes, it’s part of the reason why Jonathan and I started our relationship both academically and also romantically is because we think about things in the same way. He’s always said, and I agree with him on this, that the expression of Canadian cuisine and flavor is through the amalgamation of incredible cultures that have come here and settled and brought their food and traditions with them.
For us, we’re able to take the idea of Bittered Sling and create incredible recipes with botanicals roots, spices, barks, and any other ingredients that we enjoy and infuse them with great alcohol, work with really great companies and great suppliers for all of our ingredients. Each one of the bottles will have a different expression, something that was important to us in our careers or what we’ve seen, where we’ve traveled, what we brought back to Canada.
Lem-Marrakech is our Moroccan spiced, lemon bitters that is inspired by our trips to Morocco. The flavors of walking through the Kasbah and sticking your hands into the spices and smelling the lemons and drinking the mint tea and just like that. That is what that encapsulates in that bottle, but it’s strong enough that you can use it with whiskey, rum, et cetera. If you want it to get adventurous and put Lem-Marrakech Bitters in a Bobby Burns, which has Benedictine, sweet vermouth, and scotch whisky, it would be extraordinary. The bitters would be strong enough to stand up to it while bringing out the best of everything else in that drink.
I guess to round this all out, the story of bitters is long and fascinating and amazing. The best bartenders use bitters. It’s no secret and it’s not rocket science. It’s using it as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world. When you add, and Jonathan can obviously speak more to this than I can, but just very loosely, if you add, salt, pepper, and appropriate seasoning to a specific dish, it doesn’t make it salty, but it brings out the flavor of everything that’s in that dish.
We use bitters behind the bar in the same way. To bring that Manhattan to life with two parts whisky, one part vermouth, they become two separate ingredients, but bitters is the foil that brings them together and makes the Manhattan. It’s very easy to use bitters as well. I think you just have to think about it from that perspective.
Susan: Just a little bit going back a little when they were creating bitters. You’re saying that these things that are distilled into alcohol. Do you know why those didn’t become separate spirits themselves? And they ended up being bitters?
Lauren: Well, some of the spirits were really terrible. I mean, you wouldn’t, necessarily want to drink some of the things that came off the still, and it’s actually almost like the reason of the creation of gin and a lot of ways it’s like adding botanicals to mask the flavor of really terrible alcohol, but eventually the alcohol gets better.
The botanicals get better and we develop a taste for these amazing botanicals. Now all of a sudden, we have this spirit that we can’t live without. It was the same. It would have been the same back then. It was always wine. Alcohol, straight alcohol, was added to wine to help preserve it in long travel and happened to be sitting in barrels during travel. All of a sudden, we have claret and port that’s been aged in wood and that becomes the same thing that we drink today. Only better quality.
Susan: I guess with the bitters, maybe, drinking a whole glass of it might be horrible, but adding a teeny, little, tiny bit to a drink, a few dashes just was the magic.
Lauren: Well, actually, but there were two different ways to look at bitters and that is what led us to invest in categorizing potable bitters and also non-potable bitters. I say us as like the industry. Non-potable bitters are the ones that are administered by dashes and drops, like Bittered Sling.
Jonathan: Because of their intensity.
Lauren: Yes, because of their intensity and then the potable bitters, like the Fernet, the Jäger, the Campari, different vermouths, or Amari, you name it Suze like Amar Picon, which is just right here. If people really had the taste for it and it was actually quite a significant European taste for potable bitters, that people would drink, the Milano Torino, they would drink things on ice. You know, it’s very European.
But in the US where, American cocktail culture, which is like the North American cocktail culture, it would have started actually with non-potable bitters, because that’s how they were making drinks. American style drinks were led with whiskey or gin or other spirits with vermouths, liqueurs, modifiers, and bitters. The two worlds sort of existed separately, and now we’re lucky that they’re available together.
Susan: Oh, my God. I just had a eureka moment. I never even put the two together really the Amari, the Bitters. I don’t know why, in my brain, they were oranges and apples or cats and dogs. I didn’t even think of them as the same thing. It’s amazing.
Now, when you were dating and the early days, and you were enjoying all of these things together. Jonathan were your eyes, just like my eyes, were open to, oh my God. I never even thought about this whole world of bitters and a whole other thing to create and eat and enjoy or drink or add to something or were you just blown away.
Jonathan: Totally and in the moment completely. My friend and I, we left and he said that was absolutely incredible because he’s actually the guy who we were eating with when we met Lauren, he’s my mentor. His name’s Peter Zambri and owns a restaurant in Victoria and he’s 10 years older than me. both of us were really tasting things for the first time. Lauren had made a black walnut vermouth from a local wine and black walnuts from the vineyard that made the wine and then layered it with complex spices and mango bitters and peach and pepper bitters. it was like getting hit with a jolt of electricity every time she brought a drink over.
Then she’d also bring the jar of macerated botanicals to look at it. It was really eye-opening. What was very cool, very quickly was Lauren. I was invited to go to a lot of cocktail conferences and festivals, so I went along and one of the first ones was Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, which at the time is the biggest cocktail festival in the world. And then that’s the gateway to everything and being able to taste the world’s great spirits, all in one place in such an electric, incredible gastronomical city.
So, we’re eating, we’re drinking, and really being explorers. Like for me, I was in my early thirties and so it was a really good time to have the experience of all of the cooking and traveling I had done to be able to really approach spirits from a technical and taste aspect as opposed to a party aspect.
We went to Louisville, Kentucky, and did bourbon distillery visits and met all of these really incredible people. The faces behind the stills, people whose family’s been making spirits for generations, or they’ve held the same job since they were 18 and now, they’re in their sixties, and they’re getting ready to pass their master distiller hat over to their son or daughter who’s apprenticing with them. Seeing the cultural aspect of spirits too, was really incredible.
Then the third aspect of that, which I think is the best aspect is a community. You know, you meet bartenders and chefs and people who just love flavors, food, and beverage from all over the world. Everybody, they’re all on their own on the same page that Lauren and I were when we first met talking about flavors, really analyzing what it is, where we’re drinking and talking about in much the same way people discuss art and movies and literature.
These people are coming from all over the world and they’re doctors and they’re lawyers and they’ve got MBAs in business, and they’re all drawn to the spirits business. A lot of them quit their jobs to become bartenders or to become distillers or to make these artisan products and I was seeing the same thing in the kitchen as well, because in 1999, 2000 I was working at some really great places in Canada and we would always sort of middle-aged, I’ve been doing this career which I’ve got an incredibly high education to do. I’m going to jettison that and take a job as a line cook for minimum wage and PLPs for you for the summer, because I love cooking. Also, because they had a whack of cash in the bank and they could do that kind of thing, but there was this whole , it’s actually, I’m going to wax nostalgic about it now because those days are long gone, so long gone.
It’s like that whole industry is on fire now. Nobody can find staff. It’s a real shift in 20 years of the industry being completely spun around. When we started dating in 2010, it was smack in the middle of that whole incredible gastronomical enlightenment. That led to the advent of our ubiquitous food culture and magazines, television, movies. It’s just our zeitgeist is full of food and drink now in a way that it never had been before in history and it’s coinciding at this time where we can’t open our restaurants, we can’t open our bars and we can’t find any staff when we can open them. So, it’s this really unique time that we’re in right now.
Susan: And the longing to get back to that, definitely. Well, I was wondering when she invited you into her den of bitters, did that change your mind. Did you want to run back to the, your kitchen and make food?
Jonathan: No. I was already cooking with bitters at that time. it’s interesting because I’d been to a food conference and watched this great San Francisco chef. Doesn’t matter who he is, but he had in his seasoning tray, he had his salt, pepper, epaulette, spice blends. He had a bottle of Angostura bitters and he was using it to season and I’m like, okay, I’m going to check that out. It becomes this extra tool when you’re cooking, because essentially a bottle of bitters is a very well thought out, constructed and balanced spice rack, which points in a specific direction, depending on the flavor of the bitters.
When you use that and add that when you’re cooking, especially when you’re using it in seafood dishes, egg dishes, like an egg foam, saucy kind of thing. Or in pastry making, cakes chocolates, the sweet realm, that spice profile really plays well. In fact, if you were to taste vanilla extract, it’s very bitter.
It’s an incredibly bitter alcohol extract of vanilla bean, and it gives that signature backing note to all things that are butter, flour, sugar based, and without it, the butter, flour, sugar doesn’t really taste like much. But when you add vanilla, you’re not tasting the vanilla bean. It’s the backing note behind everything else that gives it a character and a base which was all the flavors play off each other. so that’s how bitters work in the cocktail glass.
To a certain degree, bitters can work like that as a seasoning element in food as well. When I met Lauren, I was already using bitters as sort of a tool, but not to the degree that two years later, we were really working with it. Well, so the next thing we did, we got Bittered Sling going and then we quit our jobs and started a catering company boutique called Kayla culinary arts. We started doing plant focused, local catering and a pop-up restaurant. We did a pop-up restaurant twice a week at a partner liquor store that had a 36-person long table in the middle of the store and a little kitchenette.
Lauren: And we did that for like five years.
Jonathan: Yeah. We would work with different spirits brands and bring in local bartenders and also bartenders from different parts of the world. We would do a cocktail menu that was based around the theme of the cuisine. The theme of that cuisine would be based around the origin of the spirit that we’re using, or the portfolio that we’re using.
We called that Bittered Sling bistro, and we did that for years and years. That was the real sort of learning how can we really use bitters in cuisine as an effective tool and not just as a marketing hook of just add bitters to this. We’ll sell more bitters, but no, how can bitters actually affect the flavor that enhances it in a great way? I’ll say this, not all bitters belong in food, but select bitters’ flavors are extraordinary in different aspects of cooking. We really did explore that to its fullest potential.
Susan: And when you decided to create Bittered Sling, was it difficult for you both to agree on what to start with, as in flavors and what your first few bitter styles were going to be, or first few bittered flavors were going to be?
Lauren: I would say that because I already came in with a background of making bitters, it was easy for me to steer the ship a little bit. However, I steered the ship to the point where I would gift wrap everything that I had done previously. I said, Jonathan, this is what I’ve been doing. then he said, this is how we can improve it, this is how we can make it better. I think our partnership from the beginning was always incredibly cooperative because so much of what we were passionate about was always flavors. It was a joy to sit down. take an ingredient of the day.
Let’s call it banana peel. We would stick a piece of banana peel in hot water. We would eat the banana peel on its own. We would cold brew the banana peel. We would put it in alcohol and then we would write tasting notes for the entire thing. How do you describe what a banana peel tastes like to somebody? Who’s not going to put a banana peel in their mouth?
We did that with orange peels, grapefruit peels, lemon peels, wild celery, plums, cherries, peaches. We did it with every sort of main ingredient that we wanted to highlight because it made sense as part of a classic bitters world. But then we also did that with all of the ingredients that played a role that would be the spice backing.
They would be the bark; they would be the spices. They would be the volatile ingredients, like fresh herbs or other fruits or other fresh ingredients. We had this amazing Rolodex or food and flavor directory of how we would describe what these flavors were. Then it became the task of the two of us putting it together in a recipe build that gave the bartenders, what they needed in finished cocktails and gave us what we needed in terms of we’re very proud of how delicious this flavors and how powerful it is. Then also for a certain extent, it needed to be balanced also to a chef’s palate.
I think the two of us, we divided and conquered. We had four that we started with and then we went up to almost like 22 flavors, and then we paired it back now to 10. But that’s over almost 12 years of doing this, but did you have something to add? I think you did.
Jonathan: One of our most popular flavors is called the Moondog Latin aromatic bitters and it goes all the way back to one of those first few dates where we said, okay, what are we going to do today? Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. We are going to construct a bitters recipe using a spice profile that describes the other’s personality in flavor. I ended up writing this recipe that described Lauren’s personality and that recipe ended up being a Moondog Latin aromatic bitters and it’s incredible. It is hot.
Susan: I was going to say you can have to know someone really well to do that. Otherwise, you could be upsetting them.
Lauren: What he said, actually, because when he actually presented the bitters back and we tasted it and I said, These are insane. They’re like going in so many different directions, but all very familiar direction. They’re really eccentric.
Susan: I love it. I love it.
Lauren: Yeah, and the one for him I created was Denman, which we discontinued now, I’m just kidding. It wasn’t relevant. Jonathan’s multiple personalities that are him. The Denman bitters was created sort of with his profile in mind because everything that he did when he was teaching me techniques or he would cook for me. I also cook a lot as well, obviously he’s professional. But everything he did had an air of how do we slide Asian flavors in here? And I don’t mean like Southeast Asian or lime leaves or things like that, but I mean the spices that really make up the bulk of what Chinese cuisine could be in different provinces.
We always had star anise and he always had different peppers and different chilies and just different things that he would bring it to life and use it in a way that I’d never experienced before. Of course, he spent time in China, so that was really cool. Denman felt very Chinese in its nature and its flavor profile as like an origin where a lot of those spices came from. , And so we actually evolved that flavor to become Kensington and Kensington is our big aromatic bitters as well and, and Kensington and Moondog now sit side by each in the global flavors lineup. So, I feel like we both managed to get there.
Jonathan: I think that’s one of the things that makes Bittered Sling stand out in the vast ocean of bitters brands that are out there. It’s like, do you know a bartender? Okay. You know, somebody that makes bitters like everybody makes bitters and a lot of them are great. But ours really speaks to people in a way that’s unique because of the way it works in the glass and the way it works with the chosen spirits, the modifiers, the sweeteners.
It’s really designed to balance and enhance. We make them bone dry. We don’t add any sugar. They’re really intense, so no matter which one you’re using, which flavor, they’re all going to speak at the same volume and that’s really helpful for the user when they’re, tasting and putting together a cocktail.
They know that Bittered Sling is going to give them this impact in this balance and this spice profile to their drink when they add it. I think that is a unique evolution of our palates as a career bartender with, at the time, a decade of experience and then a chef with coming into two decades of experience, that’s collectively. So much tasting, so much really contemplating flavors and how they interact, how they intersect, how they’re going to impact on the palate.
Like I said, at the time, we were just like geeking out with Harold McGee books and spending way too much money on Spanish cookbooks and then translating them. This was our thing. Now we’ve got this legacy of flavors because the bitters themselves have been locked since 2014.
There was, I guess, two years where we were really sort of tweaking what some of the flavors really, really going to stand out and with the citrus flavors in particular, the first round of citrus. We had the feedback we got from our customers and our friends was the voice really isn’t as loud as say the Moondog or the Plum and Root Beer. It’s a little softer. that’s when we went back and we refined all of the recipes, so that they’re all the same level, the same voice.
They’re all in very different directions in terms of where the spices and the bitter barks and roots take you. On that, flavor journey. But that, you know, it’s been a great evolution and now, you know, we’ve got this incredible legacy of really our life’s work as professionals.
Susan: Obviously you acted as your own brand ambassadors when you first created them. You know, it’s almost nine year at eight years ago. Did you feel the people were open to trying new bitters? When you went into a bar to introduce them were people like, ah, it’s okay. We got our bitters and we know what to do with them, and we’re not ready to have anything new.
Lauren: Well, actually, we created Bittered Sling, the prototypes of what would become Bittered Sling, was actually 2008, 2009. We opened our first company in 2011, which again was the catering and events company, which still is the owner of the trademarks for Bittered Sling. It owns Bittered Sling. If we want to talk about our first bottles commercially available, they would have been 2012, which means we’re celebrating our 10-year anniversary in February of 2022, which is amazing.
At the time when we developed and launched Bittered Sling it’s not because there was a huge commercial opportunity to jump into a void where there were no bitters, but to actually create the opportunity and the demand for bitters because in Canada at the time there was no education. There was very little demand. Unless you were a bartender in the know. It was also far before the surge of bitters that erupted.
Classic cocktail culture was blooming at the same time, top bartenders in the world and London, New York, and then everywhere in between were still really open and interested in how they can jump into supporting really great bartender and chef owned businesses, local businesses, which was pretty cool.
Actually, at that time. It was more than that. It was a joy. It was open with big, welcoming arms. Every time we walked into a bar and restaurant we would sit down with the bar manager, all the bartenders would come walking over the servers, come walking over. The chefs would come out of the kitchen. Then all of a sudden, our 30-minute tasting with the distributor, whoever we were working with turned into a 90-minute hangout and then we’d stay for dinner and drinks and then leave some bottles behind.
A lot of those early relationships are still some of our biggest clients that have been with us for almost 10 years. I think because we established ourselves and the credibility of our products and the flavor, the quality, the commitment to the suppliers that we work with and how we embrace and develop a community as best we can, using our bitters as sort of the jumping off point for that has really given us a spot in the global universe of bitters, which is really great.
It’s not to suggest that we can sit back now and say, ah, yes, enjoy because it’s a different world. Every year, things are changing and we are changing every year and we want to make sure that we support every generation of bartender and bring more people into the industry and continue to support those who are still in the industry. They know that they can rely on us for great product. We’re very hands-on. When they chat to Bittered Sling, they’re chatting to Jonathan and Lauren, regardless of the other noise, they will get us or they’ll get one of our amazing brand ambassadors that have been with us since the beginning.
It’s been an amazing ride. If we had started this business in 2016, not sure where we’d get to, but I think we started at the right time and helped to really embrace Canadian bartenders on the map first and foremost as has been really important.
Susan: Let’s talk about the home bartender as opposed to the bartender in a bar. As I said, I’m slightly scared of bitters. Now, of course, I’m not because now I know there’s potable and non-potable, and I’ve got the whole bitter thing. But when someone buys a bottle of spirit. they want to make a drink and they want to try a different bitter. To commit to pouring 60 mils or two ounces and maybe throwing it away if they’ve got it wrong or don’t like the taste, is there a way that a home bartender could play with bitters with, I guess kind of a cheating way, know, so they’re not making a mistake. No, no?
Jonathan: Follow a recipe for God sake. I can’t tell people enough, then they’re starting cooking or starting to make drinks or whatever. Don’t experiment, follow a recipe and think about why the things that are in the recipe that work are in there together.
Lauren: I would never make anything like a baked good, without looking at a recipe. Lord knows, I have 100% been cocky enough to stand in the kitchen and say, I don’t need a recipe to make these cookies. then they come out of tasting like cardboard. So yes. We’ve done all the work already for that. You know, our website is incredibly rich with recipes for the beginner bartender at home.
Just as you mentioned, they haven’t even identified themselves as a bartender. They’ve got a Mason jar; they’ve got a glass. They may have old ice cube trays, and they’ve got this beautiful bottle of spirit that they want to do something with. So, we’ve got videos, we’ve got recipes, we’ve got photos. We have mise en place recipes that they don’t know how to make simple syrup. A lot of people don’t know how to do that.
It’s not just a one-stop shop for – we’ll teach you how to use bitters. We will teach you how to make really simple drinks with a proper evolution that already exists on our website of how you can go from the, maybe use a phrase from Tessa’s bar here in Amsterdam, The Flying Dutchman, you have to crawl before you walk before you run before you fly. That’s exactly what our website does. It gives a level of understanding on how to mix drinks with bitters at any level.
Susan: I thank God you’ve taken all of that burden off my shoulders. Follow a recipe. Do not experiment. I love that. That’s their top tip for the home bartender. Go to their website and follow the darn recipe.
Lauren: Bar tools do not matter. Recipe first for instance.
Jonathan: But again, you know, as we mentioned earlier, we’ve never in any time in history has more information been available for making delicious things. That’s a multicultural cuisine. That’s multi spirit cocktails you can be turned on to a particular style of gin. You can do some research. You can find 25 recipes from incredible bartenders on Instagram or on online. then when it calls for citrus bitters, that’s where with Bittered Sling, you could come in and we’ve got three variations of citrus, bitters, and that’s where the experimentation and the innovation can come in using the different bitters.
To modify the foundational recipe in a different way, you’re going to use different bitters, you’re going to get a different end product botanicals and the bitters are going to influence structure and the final balance and taste and how it hits your palate of that cocktail.
Depending on the bitters that you use, and this is throughout all brands, it’s going to enhance different parts of the cocktail. Depending on what you want to land, lightest to heaviest what you want to have the most impact, whether it’s the bottom notes in the vermouth that you’ve chosen to make your Negroni with. You can use a more bitter bitters to really set those out because they’re going to neutralize the bitterness of the Campari and the bitter barks of the vermouth.
You’re going to have more of those aromatic citrus notes and herbal notes stand out which doesn’t mean, you’re really changing it. It’s like those subtle nuances that you experienced when you taste well-crafted, food or drink.
Susan: Well, I feel much, much better about using bitters now. I really have been slightly, not scared obviously, but like, oh, I don’t know. I know that I like the bourbon this way. What’s it going to do?
Jonathan: What’s your favorite cocktail?
Susan: Oh, Well, I like bourbon. I like it with little sugar in it, but I’ve never really committed to the bitters. I know that’s crazy. I do order an Old Fashioned and way it comes is fabulous. But when I’m home, I’m like….
Lauren: You’re 75% of the way there though. I mean, honestly, all you need. actually, this is a great segue because I was going to say. The thing that I think home bartenders kind of screw up on is they don’t enough bitters. They feel like they’re not doing enough. So as an example, when in a cookie or a cake recipe, you have to add a teaspoon of vanilla extract that doesn’t seem to ward anybody’s feelings off. They’re like, yes, that is the right amount proportionately for sure. But then they add bitters to a cocktail. They’re like one drop it’s like, how is that going to do anything?
Proportionately to make a drink like an Old Fashioned. If you’ve got 60 mils of a bourbon, you’ve got 10 to 15 mils of sugar syrup, you know, rich or standard simple whatever your choice is, then you’ve got two dashes of bitters cause proportionately. That’s what you need to bring that volume of product together. So it transforms into an Old Fashioned. Otherwise, it’s just straight bourbon with a slight hint of something.
Jonathan: And one dash is one mil. So, one full dash out of a pipette is one milliliter.
Lauren: I think for home bartenders because home bartenders are learning about the lingo that bartenders use professionally at the same time, they’re trying to figure out how to use home, techniques and tools to make drinks.
They might think, I don’t understand what a dash is because there’s nobody here. Like I’m not a bartender, so, I don’t know what that means. When everyone’s got measuring spoons, and one mil, two mils, so if you think about it, one teaspoon is five mils. We want anywhere between, a quarter to a half teaspoon of bitters in a standard sized drink, that is two dashes.
If we could give one tip to the home bartender, other than following the recipe is you do need to be fearless and just really take the step. Cause you’re not going to screw it up because you bought bitters that tasted good to begin with. The worst thing that happens is that you add too many bitters, but it’s not going to be terrible.
It’s still going to be a delicious drink. It just might be a little bit stronger in the flavor profile of the bitters than you had hoped but using two dashes is important. So, measure it in the spoons and remember that two mils for two dashes or one mil for one dash and just measure it in your half teaspoon measure.
Susan: I don’t think I’ve had this many eureka moments in any podcast ever, by the way. All right. I just can’t wait to have that. Your job is done. No, I always ask this question at the end. If you could be anywhere drinking anything right now, where would that be?
Jonathan: Can I go first?
Lauren: Yes, go first.
Jonathan: I would like to be, and I’m going to be very specific about this because…
Lauren: You’ve had lot of time to think about it!
Jonathan: I would be in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia at my mother-in-law’s house. Lauren and all of her brothers would be there. My sister and her family would be there. My mum and dad would be there. We would have a big fire out back. We would all be having a delicious punch. I’d be roasting something, and we would all be hanging out for the first time in two years. If I could transport myself anywhere right now, that’s where be there. Moon Dog would be there too. We also have a beautiful little tackled named Moon Dog and she comes everywhere with us or though she’s a puppy right now, so, she doesn’t go anywhere.
Lauren: I was going to say that my answer is actually the same and the only edit to that is that last Christmas we sent my mom a full decked out, beautiful copper plated bar kit,
with a three-piece shaker with bar spoon, jigger, mixing glass. She had the whole deal and we sent her the full set of bitters. We did the same for Jonathan’s parents as well. What I would say is we would want the parentals to be together in the kitchen and we do some sort of little class where they were actually learning how to make drinks for the first time in two years as well. Cause, that’s really cool. Yeah. That’s the only edit I would make to that.
Susan: Yes. You know, when I started asking this question, we didn’t have COVID and now of course, almost a hundred percent say I want to be with my family, having whatever it doesn’t matter. So, I totally understand. I feel the same way. I want to thank you so so much; you’ve clarified so much about bitters for me.
I can’t wait to have not only our cocktail of the week that you send me, but also that Old Fashioned. Because I just got a bottle of bourbon sent to me in the mail, so I can’t wait to open it. Thank you, guys, so much for being here. I really appreciate it. So lovely to see you again, Lauren, and to meet you for the first time, Jonathan.
Jonathan: Thanks for having us. This is a lot of fun!
Lauren: Looking forward to having a proper drink with you in London as soon as we can get back over there. But in the meantime, always a huge pleasure to chat with you and thanks for all your ongoing support of what we do and Bittered Sling and all the number of other amazing people you have on the show supporting their businesses.
Susan: Thank you so much.
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