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Food & Drink: A Bit About Bitters

Saturday 10 November 2012
Words Spindle

The James Beard awards are designed to recognize the greatest achievements every year in gastronomy. Most of these prizes go out to distinguished chefs, or prestigious wine writers. This year, the rise of neoclassical bartending (as covered in a previous article) received its own little nod: Brad Thomas Parson’s book ‘Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-all‘ walked away with the prize for best book in beverage writing. Not bad for a book about a subject no-one seemed to care that much about until recently. In Parson’s words, Gone are the days when a lonely bottle of Angostura Bitters held court from behind the bar.’ Bitters have, over the course of the last few years, come to be regarded as an essential component of any good bartender’s arsenal. I wanted to find out how and why they went from near anonymity to virtual ubiquity, so I went to one of Toronto’s best-known bitters enthusiasts: Jeff Carroll of The County General.

Since taking control of the bar at Carlo Catallo and Victor Barry’s down-home casual eatery (they also own the long-celebrated fine-dining institution, Splendido) in July, Jeff has embraced the bourbon and rum focus (they have 35 of each), and quickly rose to some notoriety after receiving accolades from local press for his distinctive take on the Manhattan ($18): a home-made cherry, masala, and chai bitters elevated a simple classic into something complex and involving. Local restaurant authority BlogTO hailed it the best in a city of fierce competition, and The County General soon found people lining up outside the door for things other than their famous fried chicken thigh sandwich ($14).

Though he’s been a fixture of the Toronto dining landscape for as long as most industry folk care to remember, Carroll’s actually from south of the border. Born in Texas, and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Jeff came to Toronto 8 years ago to train as a chef at the city’s highly regarded George Brown culinary school. A change of heart led him towards Front of House operations, culminating in a turn at The Royal York hotel where his passion was finally realized. It seemed that being a bartender was a lot like being a chef: You have your tools, work space, and your choice of ingredients to blend in endless combinations, opening up a whole world of opportunity to excite people’s palates. In this case it was booze rather than food.

After moving around and working at some of the most prestigious bars in Toronto including The Ritz, Toronto Temperance Society and Reds, he has finally found a home at The County General, where he was granted the freedom to show what he had perfecting for years: amazing cocktails, made not only with love and precision, but with homemade bitters and syrups. With flavours like apple cinnamon bourbon bitters and cranberry orange rum bitters I knew I had stumbled on to something rather special. Carroll admits that he would rather make something from scratch wherever possible than buy a product in. Even untouchable classics get the home-made treatment here: Gin & Tonic ($14) isn’t even on the menu, yet Jeff lovingly prepares his own tonic syrup in preference to using the quinine-heavy store bought tonic water. Lime cordial, grenadine, and even different soda syrups, including root beer, are all house-made by him and his team. A fresh batch of pumpkin syrup simmers on a burner behind the bar whilst we chat. Victor Barry bursts in from the kitchen with a huge grin on his face – he’s pinched some of Jeff’s salted caramel sauce and smothered it all over an enormous pork rib chop with boudin noir and crackling. It’s going straight on the menu (Roasted Pork Rack for 2 – $48). The chef spirit is indeed alive and well with Carroll, and the burner is in frequent use, for which he dips into a maddening array of mason jars packed with ingredients that stack up all over the bar. Sassafras, black walnut leaf, and citric acid sit alongside the liquor as though they’re at home here. They are.

This is all beside the point. I came to talk bitters. Jeff explains that there are several different methods one can use to make the magical stuff, but that it’s impossible to make without a good bittering agent. He sources wormwood and cinchona bark from local herbal stores and uses them as the base of an infusion with any number of flavours and ingredients. Sitting for weeks in a mason jar full of either high proof bourbon or rum (many people use clear alcohols, but this is the County General, after all), with frequent tastings for quality control, will slowly yield a product worthy of a place behind his bar.

A cherry vanilla bourbon bitters, for example, finds it’s home in The Showdown ($14), a marriage of Maker’s Mark, El Dorado Rum, and vermouth, alongside another one of his concoctions:  a delicious ‘bourboned’ (rather than brandied) cherry. It’s becoming clear that bitters are only a part of the wider picture for Jeff’s approach. He’s launching a new fall/winter cocktail menu soon. Expect some surprises, including this little gem he shared with us for you to make at home:

Krak’n Nog

1oz Kraken spiced rum

1/2oz brandy

1 barspoon spice mix (ground cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg)

1/2oz simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water)

1/2oz milk (2%)

1 whole egg

To make, dry shake all ingredients (no ice), then shake with lots of ice and fine strain into a wine glass. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

The County General

936 Queen Street West. 416.531.4447

Mon-Fri: Lunch 11am-4.30pm; Dinner 5.30-11pm

Sat-Sun: Brunch 10am-4.30pm; Dinner 5.30-11pm

Reservations for weekday lunches only


Jen Hunter is Spindle’s Toronto Food & Drink Correspondent. You can follow more of her gastronomic misadventures on Twitter @JennyTreehorn