Willie Jane mixologist Derrick Bass concocts custom bitters for experimental cocktails
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
It’s a pivotal ingredient in cocktails: the drop or dash of bitters that gives a drink depth of flavor.
With the handcrafted cocktail revolution has come a new interest in the most strongly flavored item on a bartender’s shelf.
Derrick Bass, a mixologist at Willie Jane restaurant on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, is making his own custom bitters to craft adventurous cocktails with fresh and seasonal flavors.
What is the history of bitters? I seem to remember that there are several kinds.
Most bitters started out as herbal medicines and tonics back in the day — possibly as far back as Renaissance Italy. The doctors of the time created these for headaches, upset stomach and anything having to do with digestion. There are two types: the very strong ones that were originally designed for medicines but taste great in cocktails, and less assertive ones that you traditionally have as a digestive after dinner.
I don’t make any of the amaros, the milder bitters that are made to be drunk straight. I am more focused on a modern garden-to-glass idea, using herbal tinctures to create fresh, seasonal bitters. Tinctures use alcohol to leach the essential oils out of plants; you have to leave the herbs in there between two weeks and a month in a cool, dry area. You make sure the oils are completely mixed in the alcohol by shaking the bottle every day.
Do you use those bitters that you make in standard cocktails instead of the traditional brands?
I stick to the classic bitters to make the classic drinks — if anybody calls for a Sazerac, I’m reaching for Peychaud’s, if they want a Manhattan I use Carpano Antica and Angostura bitters. If they’re interested in the more creative aspects of the cocktail, something fresh and seasonal, that’s where my bitters come into play.
Mixologists are making all sorts of things like fruit infusions, and those take less time and give you more ability to adjust the flavor while you’re making it. What attracts you to crafting something as concentrated as bitters instead of something you’d have more control over?
It’s a very powerful thing, where a few drops can make a cocktail, a few more can ruin it. It’s an attention-to-detail thing, and it’s fun and rewarding and challenging for me.
There’s a bottle on the bar labeled ‘We’ve Got Plenty of Thyme,’ and I don’t associate thyme with bitter flavors.
That’s a tincture that I use in some drinks — it is all about playing up the herbal aspects, and it’s different from a bitter. The bitters I have now are the rhubarb bitters and midnight bitters, both of which you taste as a tonic. Rhubarb has a very strong, funky herbal flavor that can be almost like cabbage, and you have to treat it carefully — raw rhubarb can make you sick, so I blanch it. I add that to unique natural bittering agents, motherwort, gentian, dandelion root. There are many bittering agents, and every company uses a different blend or different variations.
Midnight Bitters is made with rosemary, citron geranium, charred hickory, orange peel, and gentian root. It has a very full herbal aspect, as opposed to something like Angostura, which is very dark.
Are you guided by Italian tradition? Do they make rhubarb bitters or something like your midnight bitters in Italy?
For me this is a new American tradition, and it’s informed and guided by what we can grow here — literally here, as I’m lucky enough to have the Cook’s Garden right next door to me where we grow our herbs. I can go over there and begin playing and concocting my own recipes. I’ve never made any in the traditional Italian style. I’m more interested in trying new things.
Some of our readers may have a bottle of Angostura bitters on the shelf that is years old. Do bitters go bad?
Commercial bitters have a long shelf life, so they’re probably fine. My bitters have a shelf life of about a year, but in the environment of a bar they don’t last that long. I only make it two bottles at a time rather than a bucketful. I want to keep it garden-to-glass, local and seasonal — this isn’t a commercial product, it’s all handmade. A little goes a long way, so they do last for a while.
People come to Willie Jane for Southern-style American cuisine. Do they ask for a cocktail to go with fried chicken, steak or oxtail stew? What do you tell them?
Cocktails are for exciting your palate to make you hungry for food, or they’re great after dinner, to help you digest and settle your stomach. We have Champagne for the fried chicken, red wines for the steaks, and after dinner we’ll serve a heavy, aromatic drink like a Manhattan. I’d make it with the traditional ingredients unless they say they’re open for experimentation, but if they do I’ll throw in some curve balls.
Derrick Bass pours at Willie Jane, 1031 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. Call (310) 392-2425 or visit williejane.com.