October 18, 2012 | 8:24am
For eons, the only things to drink in South Florida were bright pink Miami Vices, frozen pina coladas, and buckets of rum punch. But the craft cocktail craze finally made its way here.
And the mixologists at Sweetwater Bar and Grill in Boynton Beach have really mastered the trend. Here, the focus is to create something different, and that's exactly what you get: nouveaux takes based off tried-and-true concoctions that will take you back in time for a taste of Prohibition's speakeasy, atavistic era.
To do so, perhaps no ingredient is more important than bitters. Bitters are a very concentrated ingredient made up of a base liquor that's flavored with a variety of herbs, fruits, spices and roots; the formula is often "secret." Adding bitters to a drink can impart a heavy dose of flavor, and helps to balance the combination of different liquors.
A house favorite brand at Sweetwater would be Bittermens, a small Brooklyn-based company owned by Avery and Janet Glasser, who recently stopped by Sweetwater October 4 as the special guests of the restaurant's "Bitter Date" cocktail event.
Clean Plate Charlie had the chance to speak with the couple about their bitter business while Sweetwater bartender Vince Agro whipped up several of the Glasser's favorite drinks. They gave us three recipes for some "new classic" cocktails made with Bittermens products, including Agro's own creation, a libation he's dubbed the Ménage à Trois.
According to the Glassers, Bittermens began as a way to "solve problems for bartenders," and make their lives easier. "At the time we started mixing [these] bitters, there were so many drinks we wanted to make, but couldn't because we didn't have the right ingredients, or there were bitters that were just OK."
What to do? Make their own. Today the Glassers make their bitters the same way they started: just the two of them. Glasser and his wife hand-make every product themselves, producing anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 bottles of bitters each month. What separates their products from others, they say, is not only the attention to detail, but also the ingredients they use. Every product is made using mostly organic or certified wild harvested herbs, citrus, and peels, which are macerated in 190-proof neutral grain spirits for approximately two weeks before being manually filtered, bottled, and sealed.
Among the Bittermens products you'll find five bitters and three extracts -- as well as a recently launched line of six specialty liqueurs -- each originally created to solve a cocktail conundrum faced by bartenders at the various cities in which the Glassers have lived and worked over the years.
Take the couple's first potion, the Xocolatl Mole bitter, inspired by the classic chocolate Mexican mole sauce, but created in San Francisco for a bartender who wanted something to pair with aged tequila. Their Burlesque Bitters, a tart berry and floral tincture with a 44% ABV made specifically for mixing with amari, tequila, gin, and rum is yet another favorite, or their Orange Cream Citrate -- a concentrated sour flavor that is an alternative to the muted orange flavor found in most orange bitters.
No matter what the story, each product is designed to pair with various spirits to help innovative bartenders nationwide create whatever they can dream up. While classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan are still in high-demand, Glasser said he hopes the bitters he and his wife make by hand will help innovative bartenders -- like those found at Sweetwater -- to create the "new classics."
At Sweetwater, bartender Agro uses Bittermens to make many a cocktail, including a house favorite known as the Whiskey Ultimatum. But that's a far cry from the bitter end of this bar's seasonally rotating menu. Here, three drinks you can make yourself -- or order up from the pros -- from Bittermens and Sweetwater:
Some of the ingredients for Argo's Menage a Trois cocktail.
Ménage à Trois
2 oz Hennessy
1 oz Amaro Nonino
3/4 oz Luxardo
1/2 oz Bittermens Citron Sauvage Liqueur
1/2 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
1/2 oz Simple Syrup
1 Dash of Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters
Shake ingredients and pour over ice (preferably one large ice cube to avoid dilution). Serve in a highball glass. No garnish.
Agro didn't name his new drink -- which uses Bittermens' newest liqueur product line -- after a scandalous sexual commingling between three people. Instead, it's a reference to the mixing of three spirits, specifically a heady combination of Hennessy, Amaro Nonino (an Italian herbal digestif), and Luxardo (an Italian maraschino liqueur).
Goodnight, Farewell and Amen
Bittermens owner Avery Glasser.
1 oz Buffalo Trace Bourbon
1 oz Branca Mentha
1/2 oz Bittermens Amere Sauvage
1/2 oz El Tesoro Reposado Tequila
Combine ingredients in a rock glass and serve at room temperature. No ice. No garnish.
"This is my new favorite cocktail," Avery told Clean Plate Charlie of his own creation. "It's a warm drink -- served at room temperature, so you can really taste the ingredients. This is a real drinker's drink," and -- like its name, "is the perfect nightcap" to end the evening.
Bittermens bitters behind the Sweetwater bar.
The Whiskey Ultimatum
2 oz of Angel's Envy bourbon
1 oz of B&B (equal parts of the French herbal liqueur Bénédictine and brandy)
1/2 oz of fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz of fresh strawberry rhubarb jam
1 or 2 dashes of Bittermens Boston Bittahs
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Pour over strainer into martini glass. Serve without a garnish.
For more information about Bittermens, visit the company website and Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter. To purchase, find them sold at the Tropical Wine and Spirits and the Grateful Palate, or served at bars including Sweetwater, Park Tavern and Lantana Jacks.