Mixing It Up with AZ Bitters Lab

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Bill and Lillian Buitenhuys aren't bitter people. They're bitters people, ardent food lovers whose interests have broadened from food-and-wine pairings to food-and-cocktail pairings to the distinctive components, such as bitters, that go into both classic and craft cocktails.

Although the Buitenhuys hold down 9-to-5 managerial jobs, they spend most of their free time playing mad scientist in their kitchen, dubbed AZ Bitters Lab.

There, they have become the first in the Valley to actually make their own bitters -- a potent flavoring agent containing a neutral spirit and some combination of roots, herbs, fruits and spices. (If you've ever drunk a Manhattan, an Old-Fashioned or a Sazerac, you've tasted bitters.)

Just like the local bartenders who mentor them do.

Take a visual tour through the AZ Bitters Lab.

Did I say "bartenders"? Excuse me, "mixologists," which is to say rock stars, which is to say chef-like people who consider flavor principles, incorporate farm-fresh ingredients, and buy or make their own artisanal (i.e., small batch) cocktail ingredients.

Commercial Angostura (the bitters label behind every bar for the last zillion years) has become a bit passé in the Brave New Cocktail World. Artisanal bitters, created in culinary-inspired flavors, are way better.

That's what the Buitenhuys learned from mixology mentors Travis Nass (Lon's at the Hermosa), Richie Moe (Citizen Public House), and Jason Asher (mixologist for spirits distributor Young's Market Company).

And it's that philosophy that surely inspired them to go out on an entrepreneurial limb. Get this . . .

In less than a year, the Buitenhuys have progressed from home hobbyists, experimenting with single-ingredient tinctures (say, lemon peel + a neutral spirit in a Mason jar) to a small corporation, poised to launch three distinctive styles of bitters.

Of course, when they first got the itch to take their dream to the bitters end, they couldn't have imagined all the legal hoops they'd jump through, dealing with the FDA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of the Treasury.

Bitters have never been produced for sale in Arizona before, and at first, Maricopa County sent them to the state liquor board. Eventually, some nice lady somewhere suggested the Buitenhuys categorize their bitters as a food product, like vanilla extract, which contains alcohol (in the case of bitters, nearly 50 percent), but is not potable.

Meanwhile, the Buitenhuys have found the prerequisite commercial kitchen, and they've made a loose marketing plan, which they'll put in place once the legalities are squared away. They plan to set up shop at local farmers markets and sell to the hotshot bartenders they already know.

How do they come up with new flavor profiles?

Like all good cooks, mixologists and general concoctionists, they might start with an ingredient or dish they like -- say, tomato or even Mexican mole -- and then play around with ingredients that either go well with it or go into it.

The result is bitters that reveal the dark underpinning of bitterness that gives the product its name as well as layers of lighter notes that might be sweet, floral, nutty, herbaceous or spicy.

The three flavors they've perfected and the ingredients each contain are:

Orange -- AZ navel oranges, dried orange peel, spices, orange blossom water, orange blossom honey, gentian

Mas Mole #2 (based on Ricky Bayless' mole recipe) -- Ancho, pasilla and Colorado chile, Fair Trade cacao nibs, currant, spices, almonds, orange, amber agave nectar, quassia/wormwood/gentian

Figgy Pudding #2 -- Calimyrna and Black Mission figs, spices, orange, quassia, black walnut leaf

Stay tuned: Chow Bella will let you know as soon as the bitters are on the market.

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