I’ve been making craft cocktails at home for a while. Over the past few years, I have acquired all the tools and ingredients needed to create a variety of libations. However, I had been stumped about how to properly use cocktail bitters. I figured it was a good excuse to get out and do some research. So, I headed to Raleigh, North Carolina to meet the owners of Crude Bitters. Without further ado, I bring you a lesson in bitters and some bars in Raleigh not to miss.
This post was originally published in August 2019 and updated in April 2021.
What are bitters?
In case you are not familiar with cocktail bitters, they are “liquor-based flavoring agents.” They’re commonly referred to as the spice rack of the cocktail world. They are made by soaking herbs, barks, and fruits in alcohol like Everclear (which has no taste but is very strong). Bitters come in lots of different flavor profiles and can be used in cocktails and for cooking. They can be used in place of vanilla, for example.
Meeting Craig and Lindsay was great. I enjoyed listening to their story of owning and operating North Carolina’s first cocktail bitters company. And about the hoops North Carolina has for liquor and liquor businesses. (It makes their story even more impressive.) I always admire entrepreneurs for going after the things they love. That journey between having an idea and doing the work to get to it is just so inspiring.
A little Crude Bitters history
Lindsay and Craig started making their own sodas and bitters at home to cut out things like high fructose corn syrup. At the same time, Craig was a bartender in Raleigh at a farm-to-table restaurant that prided themselves on using local ingredients. Craig made syrups, sodas, and shrubs from local produce and herbs for the bar.
He started experimenting more and the collection in his home fridge started getting out of hand. Customers at the restaurant were giving good feedback on his creations, so he and Lindsay started selling sodas and bitters at the Farmer’s Market in Raleigh. They decided to focus on combinations of flavors, instead of single flavors (like orange), because the market already had a lot of single flavors. Crude Bitters will celebrate its seventh anniversary this December.
How to Use Bitters in Your Cocktails
Craig and Lindsay said that one of the hardest things for their business is people understanding what bitters are and when to use them. People don’t buy what they don’t understand, so Crude has done a lot of education. Craig also teaches five cocktail classes a month, so if you are headed to Raleigh (or live there), try one out!
When I asked what the most common mistake people make when using bitters, Lindsay easily answered, “Not using enough, or not being brave enough.” Both of those are things that resonated with me. I don’t want to squeeze fruit, measure out liquor, and then ruin it by throwing off the balance with bitters! In that case, she suggested a couple of things:
- Drink half your drink without bitters, and add them to the second half
- Bitters can be added to anything you’re drinking, trying them with soda water can give you an idea of what flavors you like
- Add a few drops, mix, taste and repeat until you reach a place that you like the taste
- 1 dash = roughly 3 drops (in case you wondered, which I did)
- Crude Bitters come with a glass dropper. Lindsay suggested using a half to a full dropper in a drink.
- You’re not going to mess it up, so USE them!
If you are feeling thirsty and ready to use some of your bitters, here’s a great recipe from Craig. If you don’t have any bitters, or would like to experiment with some new flavors, you can order Crude’s bitters and shrubs here.
- 1 cube sugar or a tsp of sugar, honey, or simple syrup
- 1 dropper Crude orange & fig bitters or any other flavor you like
- 2 oz rye whiskey or bourbon
- 1 twist lemon or orange peel
- 1 2×2 cube of ice or 2-3 regular ice cubes
- Place the sugar cube into a rocks glass.
- Add the bitters and a splash of water to the glass.
- Mash, stir, and smash the sugar and bitters together.
- Add the ice.
- Add the booze.
- Stir together and garnish with the citrus peel of choice. Enjoy!
Bars in Raleigh Using Crude Bitters
I checked out a few bars in Raleigh. Two of the places I went had drinks featuring bitters. The first was Apéro where I had the Adonis. It is made with fino sherry, Dolin blanc vermouth, and Crude’s orange & fig bitters. It was light and refreshing. I loved the vintage glassware.
The second place I went came highly recommended by Craig and Lindsay, and is one not to miss. The Fiction Kitchen is an incredible vegan/vegetarian restaurant with an amazing bar. That’s a rare combination to find. In addition to an outstanding meal, I also enjoyed the Fiction Fizz. This cocktail features Conniption gin, mint-lavendar-rosemary simple syrup, lemon, lime, blood orange-ginger bitters, aqua faba, orange blossom water, and thyme. It was like a fresh creamy herb garden in a glass.
Other Bars in Raleigh
If you’re looking for a snack, Gallo Pelón has the most delicious queso and guacamole. The fresh, thick tortilla chips were fresh and delicious. In addition to tasty snacks, Gallo Pelón is better known as a mezcaleria. If you know me at all, you know I love mezcal. One of the cocktails I tried, The Dirt Nap, features mezcal, Oaxacan rum, tamarind, ginger, lemon, and honey. It was delicious!
FOUNDATION was so good, I almost went both nights I was in town but I have to pace myself when conducting research. The White Bronco was one of the most unique and delicious cocktails I have had in a while. Featuring Greek yogurt and a house-made pineapple cordial, it was definitely not the kind of drink one could easily replicate at home. The fact that it contained both gin (Seagram’s Distiller’s Reserve Gin) and rum (Cruzan White Rum) didn’t hurt either.
Thanks for checking out some bars in Raleigh, NC with me. I hope you’re sipping on a homemade creation of your own soon. And, if you haven’t yet figured out what you like, check out my post on How to Pick the Perfect Cocktail. Cheers!