Fittingly, given his background as a respected Vancouver chef, Jonathan Chovancek put things in understandable culinary terms when talking bitters—one of the most formidable yet often under-the-radar weapons of today’s progressive bartenders.
“It’s almost like when you add salt to a dish or lemon juice to a fish,” the eminently quotable cocktail enthusiast says, on the line from Montreal, where he’s on a business trip. “You’re not making lemon fish—you’re making the fish taste more of itself by adding that acid to it. So with cocktail bitters, you’re really bringing out the dynamics of your carefully chosen ingredients that you’ve put in your cocktail. The spice build in the bitters is going to help enhance and steer that palate experience in the glass.”
Along with award-winning Vancouver bartender Lauren Mote (his real-life partner), Chovancek has turned his passion for a perfectly crafted cocktail into a business. The two are the founders and creative team behind Bittered Sling Bitters, which has gone from a 2012 startup to a brand embraced by bartenders from the United Kingdom to Australia to the Cayman Islands.
Bitters have, of course, been around since the iconic Jerry Thomas was working the bar at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, with Angostura perhaps the world’s most recognizable standby. An explosion in cocktail culture over the past decade, along with a booming interest in craft food and drink, has led to companies across the continent (including Scrappy’s Bitters in Seattle and Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters) pushing the possibilities—which is to say bitters aren’t just for a classic Old-Fashioned or Barbados Rum Punch anymore.
Bittered Sling Bitters started with Chovancek being wowed by Mote’s prowess behind the bar at the Refinery on Granville back in 2010. Having read cocktail articles that Mote had written, Chovancek stopped in for drinks with a friend.
“At the time I was a vodka-soda guy—no cocktails,” he recalls. “So we went up and she started taking us through her program. All along the walls of the bar were these mustard jars and Grolsch bottles of bitters, tinctures, and infusions she was doing. With the cocktails she was bringing out, suddenly we were getting flavours in a drink that we hadn’t experienced before—a level of complexity that, in 2010, was only really happening in London and New York.”
After Chovancek and Mote started dating, they quickly realized that, with their backgrounds in cooking and bartending, they were something of a double threat. And with cocktail renaissance hitting Vancouver, they figured there was a niche waiting to be filled.
“Meeting Lauren was a big eye-opener,” Chovancek relates. “She approached making cocktails like a chef approaches creating cuisine—and that’s through an understanding of how the science of taste and flavour works, and then being incredibly creative in how we can achieve those elements. So we started working together to hone recipes, because at the time she had about 35 bitters on the go.”
Knowing that most bars and retail outlets have limited shelf space, Bittered Sling eventually streamlined things to 12 offerings, ranging from Malagasy Chocolate to Cascade Celery to Clingstone Peach. Among the most popular is the company’s Kensington Aromatic, which it describes as a “blend of classic, dry aromatic bitters and intense herbal, high-resin spice, citrus and root flavours” and which goes perfectly in everything from a Manhattan to meszcal cocktails. (Recipes for all Bittered Sling Bitters flavours can be found at www.bitteredsling.com/.)
After starting out in Vancouver, the couple moved operations to the Okanagan, where bitters start as apple and grape distillates from Okanagan Spirits in Vernon and are then developed with various herbs, barks, fruit, roots, and other botanicals. The company doesn’t use essences, extracts, sugar, or artificial flavourings.
In the beginning, Mote and Chovancek experimented, and then tweaked recipes, relying on not only their backgrounds in food and drink but also feedback from those on the frontlines of Vancouver’s cocktail scene.
“We developed our recipes through trial and a lot of intuition,” says Chovancek, who still steps up to the stove for events like Dine Out Vancouver, but devotes most of his time to Bittered Sling. “We then fine-tuned them through customer feedback and bartenders, and listened to that feedback to finally get our line of bitters to where they are now.”
Accolades for Bittered Sling—which was the first Canadian bitters company to ship outside the country—have included gold-medal recognition from the Beverage Testing Institute’s 2014 International Review of Spirits. In addition to judging international competitions and hosting seminars, Chovancek and Mote have also been tapped for involvement at London Cocktail Week and Bar Convent Berlin.
Chovancek acknowledges that it’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around the price tags of bitters. (Bittered Sling Bitters are around $22 to $24 retail for 120-millilitre bottles.) The thing to keep in mind, he suggests, is that—just as one wouldn’t dump a box of salt or a gallon of lemon juice on a fish in the kitchen—bitters are meant to be used as an accent, meaning a little goes a long way.
“Let’s say you’re even paying $30 for a 120-millilitre bottle of bitters,” Chovancek says. “That’s expensive, but it’s easy to do the math. Each dash is 23 cents at a retail place. So if you’re looking at a cocktail that calls for one or two dashes, that’s about 50 cents of ingredients. You’ll get 50 or 60 cocktails out of that. If you think about how long it’s going to take you, at your house, 60 cocktails, that’s actually incredible value.”More