Craft cocktailing has in recent years begun to sprawl over the line separating artistry from absurdity. So it’s easy to forget that the movement’s signature accoutrements — the Boston shakers, the ice mallets, the hand juicers, the manicured moustaches and arm garters — were adopted in response to a bar culture based on flavorless liquor and artificial shortcuts.
When pioneering New York City bartender Jason Kosmas led beverage seminars in the 2000s, he’d illustrate the depths to which his industry had sunk by screening an instructional video from the American Bartending School: “I’m going to use two ounces of margarita mix,” a hapless teacher in a red polyester shirt announces, sloshing coolant-hued liquid into a jigger.
Kosmas’ audience always laughed. The notion of unscrewing a plastic bottle cap, when there were perfectly good limes for squeezing, ran counter to everything the new breed of barkeeps cherished. They were through with messy measurements, sugary additives and premade mixers. And within a few years, their philosophy had filtered down to the drinking public.
But a pair of local cocktail impresarios is trying to restore the reputation of the just-add-spirit format. The Gin Joint’s Joe and MariElena Raya this month premiered their line of Bittermilk mixers, sophisticated compounds designed to transmute home liquor cabinet bourbon, rye, vodka or gin into a craft cocktail bar-quality whiskey sour, old fashioned or Tom Collins. If you happen to have Champagne, rum or dry cider around, those work with the mixers, too.
Convenience is central to the Bittermilk premise. The Rayas stress the mixers aren’t meant to replace the handcrafted cocktail experience — like all serious bars, The Gin Joint will continue to make every drink from scratch. But the mixers are undeniably useful for the drink enthusiast who’s run out of basil tincture or doesn’t feel like whipping up another batch of simple syrup.
“When I get off work, it’s kind of annoying to have to get everything together, to have to juice lemons,” Joe Raya says of the product’s inspiration. “That’s the part that will make me open up a beer or a bottle of wine.”
Of course, every step saved for the consumer presented another hurdle for the Rayas, who eventually had to age burnt cane water in bourbon barrels and smoke organic honey to achieve the flavors they desired. Other than their pourability, Bittermilk mixers have nothing in common with the industrial solutions shunned by knowing bartenders. “We’re not presenting the idiot’s guide to cocktails,” Joe Raya clarifies.
The upshot for drinkers everywhere is the Rayas’ refusal to compromise their technical and ingredient standards. That potentially could extend the reach of quality cocktails, including to restaurants that can’t find or afford a skilled bartender. In deference to the craft cocktail trend, nearly every restaurant with a liquor license has lately come up with a signature cocktail list, but few have secured the expertise needed to fulfill them. Bespoke mixers could help bridge the gap.
Bittermilk isn’t the first outfit to try abridging the craft cocktail process. Seemingly every Brooklynite these days has a personal line of bitters, the aromatic herbal flavoring agent that doubles as a digestif and defines the cocktail (without bitters, you’re drinking a highball, or spirited sugar water). “In the mid-’90s, there were five companies making bitters,” Joe Raya says. “Now, there are like 500. People are getting really creative.”
Despite its name, Bittermilk doesn’t market bitters, although they’re a critical component of its compounds. “We had our favorite bitters just lined up, and we’d be drinking bitters all day,” Joe Raya says, explaining how they zeroed in on herbs and essences during the development process. “It sort of gave us an appreciation for the balance of bitters.”
The Bittermilk name is supposed to be a pun on buttermilk, both for its Southern and rudimentary connotations. “Kids have their milk,” Joe Raya says, brandishing one of his mixers. “As adults, this is like our milk.”
Nor is Bittermilk in the syrup business. Producers such as Portland’s B.G. Reynolds and San Francisco’s Small Hand Foods have tried to relieve amateur and professional bartenders of their syrup-making burdens with artisan orgeat and grenadine made with pomegranates, but Raya suspected most cocktail aficionados needed more than an eight-ounce bottle of pineapple gum syrup to create extraordinary drinks.
“We could have made a syrup, but it almost doesn’t give enough guidance,” Raya says. “The feedback I kept getting, even from chefs, was like, ‘Listen, I feel comfortable in the kitchen, but you put me behind a bar and I don’t know what to do.’ ”
Distilleries including Utah’s High West and California’s Craft Distillers have responded by bottling Manhattans like lemonade, but the Rayas wanted to give their customers more flexibility and forgo the bureaucratic hassles endemic to liquor sales. Mixers, therefore, made sense, except to fellow members of the industry, who immediately fretted about hazardous microbes.
“There’s one big hitch to the growth of boutique bottled mixers, and that’s freshness,” says cocktail writer Paul Clarke, a contributing editor at Imbibe. “This isn’t as big of a concern for things like syrups or bitters, but one of the buzzwords of the cocktail movement has been freshness — juice squeezed to order, to minimize oxidation and general yuckiness.”
Clarke continues, “Nobody expects a bartender to squeeze a tomato to make a bloody mary, so boutique bottlers get a gimme on that one, but once you start trying to bottle a shelf-stable Collins mix or a daiquiri base, you’re making compromises that are antithetical to the craft-cocktail code of ethics.”
The Rayas, who met at the Culinary Institute of America, think they’ve solved those problems with pasteurized, “beautiful” juice. MariElena Raya says the mixers should last up to six months, although she predicts they’ll be drunk long before their expiration dates.
Next up for Bittermilk is a burdock cola and a ginger-based mixer flavored with foraged herbs, but for now they’re focusing on the Tom Collins, with its bright elderflower snap; the whiskey sour, with its multidimensional sweetness; and the old-fashioned, which draws a pleasant backbeat of horseradish flavor from gentian root.
After toying with tablespoons and ounces, the Rayas decided to issue mixing directions in ratios, allowing customers to make a single cocktail or empty a whole bottle into a punch bowl. While “pour, pour and stir” might alienate the staunchest defenders of the craft cocktail scene, Joe Raya says the movement’s future could depend on making its tenets more accessible.
“When you get together to have drinks with friends, it’s not supposed to be serious,” he says.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.